Friday, April 10, 2009

True Things About Me and Films


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.

.* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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?

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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!

24 comments:

Greg said...

My parents were in their mid-thirties when they had me, common now, uncommon then. So I grew up with a sense of enjoying holding that over the heads of peers. I enjoyed learning about the past while my friends were barely keeping up with the present. As I've related on my blog before, my Dad's brothers fought in World War II and one of them died at Iwo Jima. Hell, my friends' parents experiences were all centered around protesting Vietnam.

All this to say that you do often feel older to me in your comment discourse. As a result it surprises me to see a blogger I visit and communicate with regularly write about how his parents let him see The Fly. I was with my first wife when that came out, though not married yet, so I'm like, "Your parents let you see it? What do you mean? Weren't you like 21 or something?"

And everytime you or I mention that Uptown showing of 2001 I think about Dennis' blog where we first discovered we had both seen it at the same place during the same run. Dying Young had been reserved for three months or so by the Uptown and it unceremoniously died young, very young leaving them without a movie for three months. Oh man, it was glorious. I loved the Uptown but it was always new movies and I longed to see 70mm classics there. Finally Dying Young gave me that chance. To this day I think of Dying Young in the same way a Patriots fan thinks of Mo Lewis, an unheralded hero that allowed the organization to truly shine. Some fans actually celebrate his birthday, maybe I should celebrate Dying Young's pull date.

My Mom gave me love for movies and had her favorites as well. The three movies I think of her most with are Les Diaboliques, Midnight Cowboy and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. She loved those three, especially Midnight Cowboy (sorry Jarvis). My Dad swings in the entire opposite direction. He's the anti-cinephile. His favorites are Chevy Chase movies and Die Hard. Boy, does he like Die Hard. I bought it for him for Christmas a few years ago.

Anyway, it's always great to read another blogger's early experiences with budding cinephilia. Thanks for a great read Bill.

Ed Howard said...

I love reading these kinds of stories about the development of cinephilia, although I'm afraid mine are comparatively uninteresting. Unlike seemingly almost all serious film lovers, I was not really that into film until my late teens, when a few experiences with movies (most notably, a senses-opening viewing of Mulholland Dr.) began to push me towards film.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this post. I love The Fly, though I can't imagine how scarred I would've been if I'd seen it as a kid (not that that was even a real option -- I was 5 when that came out). And it's interesting you bring up The Thing because one of my enduring childhood movie memories is seeing the original Howard Hawks version and being really enthralled by it. I gobbled up all those old Hollywood horror/sci-fi flicks as a kid.

bill r. said...

Greg - This may sound weird, but when I first realized that you thought I was much older -- well, maybe not much, I don't know specifically what you thought -- than I am, I actually felt kind of guilty, like I'd been deceiving you in some way, or that you thought you couldn't relate as well to me anymore. The latter possibility seems to have been shown to be pretty much false, but part of me still wishes that, when we first started talking, that I'd said "I'm 33!" Or 32, or whatever I was when we met.

Do you remember Lawrence of Arabia showing at the Uptown? I remember you talking about Dying Young playing there before 2001, and before you told me that I'd always been under the impression that the Uptown had been running some kind of classic film series. But I know my brothers saw the Lean film there, and I don't believe it was all that long -- a matter of months, maybe? -- before we all went to see 2001.

My parents were never cinephiles, but being born when they were, the movies they saw growing up, and into adulthood, tended to be better and more diverse in subject matter, and all that, than the ones I had in my formative years. When I started getting into movies at a young age, and started seeing "adult" movies at a younger age than my peers, or at least doing so without having to, necessarily, do so on the sly, they both would occasionally feel the urge to check out what I was watching. This made for some uncomfortable moments. They wanted to watch Fingers with me, for instance. That's another story for another day, though.

Ed - Don't assume your stories are boring, or at least that they can't be made interesting. If I succeeded in making these stories interesting, it's only because I made it personal. On the surface, none of these stories I just wrote about are anything much. But I'm glad you guys liked them, and I hope others do, too, because I honestly wasn't sure much could be made from these pretty run-of-the-mill experiences.

And, curiously, The Fly didn't scar me. Which says something about me, probably. I don't know what. I found it devestatingly sad, but I got over it. Funnily enough, watching again a few years ago (for the first time in a LONG time, too), I realized that I'd forgotten just how disgusting and disturbing a movie it is. I mainly remembered it being sad.

Pat said...

Bill -

I love this post. (And, like Greg,I had you pegged as older than you obviously are,given your knowledge and tastes.)

It's always fascinating to me how our families and growing-up experiences shape our tastes in film. I got my love for movies from my dad,and I share it with my brother (who talks movies with me for literally hours whenever we get together.)

I'm with your Mom - I love musicals and "Pirates of Penzance" is great fun (plus Kevin Kline is TOTALLY hot!). "The Music Man" was a big favorite in our house, too,mostly because my brother and I were both in our high school's production of it.

Greg said...

The thing with the Uptown was I lived just three blocks from it so I saw all movies there and was keenly aware of their schedule. They actually played Lawrence of Arabia twice. Once was the actual premiere of the restoration and the other was during the Dying Young debacle, back in the day when a movie was reserved. They thought like Pretty Woman that it was going to be a cash cow and reserved it for months, maybe four to six even. I was depressed about that but when it tanked and they put up an explanatory poster about how they were going to run classic prints for the next four months I was elated!

Man I saw so many great flicks there. Bridge on the River Kwai, Blade Runner, 2001 and on and on. I didn't see Lawrence though and I can't remember why.

I do know that since I was working retail at the time I saw all my movies at the matinee when I would work nights and it was great. I saw Deep Impact there and I was one of three people in the theatre. It was like watching the movie in my own super-huge home theatre.

Greg said...

Oh and the age thing, sorry, forgot to address that. Yeah, I thought you were older but not that much. I thought you were around 40 so it wasn't like I discovered you were 18 and was shocked. And Fox I thought was younger. I thought he was around 20 or so. Really. No offense intended at all, I just really thought Fox was around that age at first.

bill r. said...

Pat -

I'm with your Mom - I love musicals and "Pirates of Penzance" is great fun (plus Kevin Kline is TOTALLY hot!).

Although my mom would have said it differently, she'd agree with you. Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck.

But Kline is outstanding in that movie. I haven't seen it in years, but I'd love to check it out again. And what the hell ever happened to Rex Smith??

I saw Deep Impact there and I was one of three people in the theatre. It was like watching the movie in my own super-huge home theatre.

I love when that happens. It doesn't happen often, but it's sweet when it does. I almost feel like that when I simply see a movie by myself. I feel a weird sense of freedom and focus when I do that. I love seeing movies with friends and family, too, but there's a different vibe when you're alone.

And how the hell old is Fox? I thought he was, like, fourteen. And how did you find out his age? Are you guys hanging out without me? What have I been missing???

Brian Doan said...

I had that "empty/private theater" experience watching THE SPANISH PRISONER several years ago. It was a matinee in a run-down old multi-plex in Gainesville (since refurbished into a spanking-new, very busy multi-plex), and I think there was maybe one more person in the theater. It was cool, especially because that film (my favorite Mamet) is so twisty in its mystery plot that it was nice not to have a chatty group or something to distract me from getting absorbed in it.

Fantastic piece, Bill-- so rich in detail and feeling, and I always enjoy seeing what shaped people's movie-watching experiences. The parental influence is so important-- I know I love Clint Eastwood because my Dad and I used to watch all those old spaghetti westerns together when i was a kid.

Greg said...

And how did you find out his age?

He mentioned it one time in the comments. He's around your age, like 31 or 32 or something. But seriously, I really truly thought he was a teenager when I first starting seeing comments from him on blogs, didn't you? And Ryan and Krauthammer are both around 19 or 20 but seem older than Fox.

Fox, if you read this don't take any offense, I really don't mean any, it's just that you really came off as very young to me when I first got to know you.

bill r. said...

Brian - I had a similar experience when I saw The Spanish Prisoner. I saw it with a friend, in a theater that was on its last legs, and not only were we the only person seeing THAT movie, I think we may have been the only people seeing ANY movie that night. About two thirds of the way in, the image on the screen went out of line, so that everyone's head was cut off. I left the theater to tell someone, but there was nobody around. I went back into the theater, told my friend, and we just gritted our way through it until the reel change put the image right. Then, when the movie was over, and we were leaving, the lobby was still completely empty. I have no idea where any of the employees were. The theater closed down shortly after that.

And thanks, I'm glad you liked this piece.

Greg - I don't think I thought Fox was actually a teenager, but I pegged him in his early twenties, initially. Then he said he was married, so for some reason I bumped him up to his mid-twenties. And Fox, the only reason for this, on my end, at least, is all of your Immature Sex Talk, which I want no part of.

Ryan Kelly said...

What a fantastic entry. It's the kind of interweaving of life and cinephilia that I enjoy so much. We share a common eye-opening experience: 2001: A Space Odyssey. It had become one of my favorites through countless DVD viewings, and in early 2006 it was playing at New York's Ziegfeld, easily the greatest screen in the entire city. Seeing that film projected in 70mm really illuminated, for me, the power of image and sound. I'd also got to see Lawrence of Arabia in 70 mm around the same time, though can't remember if it was before or after. Last summer it played at New York's Sunshine at midnight (the second best screens in the city), and I went two nights in a row!

If you'll allow a brief indulgence on my part, I just feel like I've grown with movies. For me, just about any period in my life can be tied to what my favorite films were at the time. Being part of the home video generation I always had films at my fingertips, and it's something I am grateful for. The first visceral reaction I ever remember having to a movie was Jurassic Park, age 5. At a young age it showed me the power of illusion, though I don't think I quite rationalized it that way until later. I'll never forget when I realized movies were made by a person with a vision (later to be called a 'director'!)--- age 12, first viewing of Scorsese's GoodFellas. But, as I say, I feel like I was almost ignorant as to what visual form was capable of until that day at the Ziegfeld.

Thanks for sharing, Bill.

Ryan Kelly said...

Greg: And Ryan and Krauthammer are both around 19 or 20 but seem older than Fox.

Is Fox just the resident punching bag or what?

Bill: And Fox, the only reason for this, on my end, at least, is all of your Immature Sex Talk, which I want no part of.

You lie.

Greg said...

Is Fox just the resident punching bag or what?

No, really he isn't. I really did peg him to be A LOT younger than he was. And Bill's right, it was the sex talk or the picture links or whatever. He just came off as young. Maybe that's a compliment. Maybe I'm flattering him.

Ryan Kelly said...

He just came off as young. Maybe that's a compliment. Maybe I'm flattering him.

Yeah, I usually take it as a compliment when people say I'm immature for my age!

Ryan Kelly said...

But, if it's any consolation, I would have placed Fox around my age (20, 21 in July) or a little older.

How old is the guy??

bill r. said...

Thanks, Ryan. I probably should have told the story of going to see Return of the Jedi when it came out, but I have no connection with Star Wars anymore, so it honestly didn't occur to me, but that was quite a childhood moment, probably similar to yours with Jurassic Park. It's the only time I've been part of, or even seen, an audience giving a film a standing ovation.

I don't remember when I realized that films were directed, but I feel sure the moment was related to Hitchcock. He was a big deal for me as a kid, as he still is.

I hope Fox isn't mad about any of this. I thought he would have dropped by already. But Fox never gets mad about anything...I hope.

Greg said...

I hope Fox isn't mad about any of this. I thought he would have dropped by already. But Fox never gets mad about anything...I hope.

He doesn't visit blogs much on the weekends that's all. And I thought he was around 20 or 21 too, Ryan. And again, I'm not trying to insult him, that's just what I honestly thought. He's great fun and insightful with his reviews.

Krauthammer said...

I always assume that every blogger I read is at least 20 years older than me and I'm fairly shocked when they're not. So I'm not that surprised by Fox.

Arbogast said...

All this to say that you do often feel older to me in your comment discourse. As a result it surprises me to see a blogger I visit and communicate with regularly write about how his parents let him see The Fly. I was with my first wife when that came out, though not married yet, so I'm like, "Your parents let you see it? What do you mean? Weren't you like 21 or something?"I had the same reaction! I was fricking 25 when The Fly came out. I'd been going to movies on my own initiative for 15 years at least by that point.

Okay, now I'm depressed.

Arbogast said...

And Fox I thought was younger. I thought he was around 20 or so.Me,too. Jesus, my world was turned upside down today.

Rick Olson said...

Bill, this is a fine, nostalgic post. And I thought I was the only one who had a fond spot in his heart for "The Pirates of Penzance" I love that flick.

And I thought Fox was 80. Go figure.

bill r. said...

Sorry, Arbo. I feel like I've been lying to you and Greg this whole time. If it helps any, I hate most people my age and younger.

Rick, thanks a lot. This is not what I planned to write, really, but I'm glad with how it turned out. Pirates of Penzance is great. But where did it come from? Was it shown in theaters? Because although it looks good, it has a kind of made-for-public-TV vibe to it.

Deux Chien said...

Hey, Bill. It's Pat in Austin. How the heck are you? I didn't read all the comments, but several and just wanted to mention a couple of things. I was living on Conn. Ave. in DC when the LofA restored version came out. As it was one of my all time favorite movies as a younger person, I wanted to see it. I don't recall it being at the Uptown but it may well have been. I saw the restored version on a smaller large screen at the theatre at Chevy Chase Circle, whose name I cannot recall (age, you know.) It was, and is, a phenomenal movie. And, I just want to say your Mom's taste in men is superb! Tom Selleck and Kevin Kline. Brawn and Brains. How can you go wrong? Take care. Write an email sometime.

bill r. said...

Hey, Pat! To this day, I'm sorry I missed the Lawrence of Arabia restoration. It's still been way, way too long since I've seen that movie. I didn't know you were such a big fan of it.

My mom did have good taste in men, it's true. Selleck and Kline are still favorites of mine, though neither of them appear with the frequency or in the kinds of films that I'd like, or that they deserve. Selleck is genuinely underrated, I think.

I will write soon. Sorry I've been so bad about that lately...

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