"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–The Moviegoer


Movies have always been an important part of my life.  Far more than entertainment, they have been companions, complements to my moods, flights of fantasy, life markers.  I knew where I was when I saw Easy Rider or Blow Up and with whom.  I knew where the theatre was, what the streets were like.  I wanted to be Burt Lancaster.  I wanted Marilyn Monroe on my arm and in my bed.  I wanted to an alienated Parisian thug, a gladiator.  I wanted to race through narrow Roman streets, bounce down the Spanish steps.  I wanted chance encounters in the park, romance in Monte Carlo.  And guess what?  I had them all.  Once the movie started I became part of it.  I was subsumed with in it and consumed by it.  Nothing else mattered or existed for 1 hour and 45 minutes.  I reluctantly pulled myself out of the theatre seat, or swaggered up the aisle, reaching for a cigarette, or wandered the New York streets until the vision passed.

The first movies I remember seeing were old 8mm black-and-whites in the basement of my house when I was about 8.  They were early Walt Disney, no sound, all animated.  I don’t remember liking them particularly, although I liked to go into the basement to get out of the heat and humidity.  I remember one movie when one of the characters shrank.  I used to have dreams of shrinking, and dreamt of little tiny people even into my adulthood.

I went to the obligatory Saturday afternoon matinee – cartoons, followed by a cowboy double feature.  Obligatory because it was what you did if you were a 10 year old in New Britain, Connecticut in 1952; but I went only occasionally.  I liked the movies well enough, just not the popcorn-throwing, yelling, punching, belching and farting kids – the same kids on the camp bus, at the swimming pool, or at the gym that I could not avoid.

The first real movie I saw was The Moon is Blue (1953).  I was only eleven, but allowed to go on my first date.  Not long into the film, I realized that it was banned by the Legion of Decency.  By today’s standards it would be a G at the worst, but its sexual innuendos got it an X rating.  I was still a good Catholic, so immediately became worried about my soul and that of Susan Monte, my date who unsuspectingly was drawn into the occasion of sin.  “Oh well”, I reasoned, the sin was going to the movie, and once you did, the mortal sin had been committed.  There was nothing in the Catechism of increasing a mortal sin – more years in Hell or hotter fires or anything like that – so why not stay till the end.  Little did I know it, but that was probably the first expression of a What-the-Hell philosophy which has persisted to this day.

Within a few years I was completely hooked on movies and went whenever I could.  There were four theatres in New Britain – the Strand, the grandest of them all and done in the heavy drapery, ornate columns, and high ceiling décor of the period.  The Embassy was smaller, but still acceptable to the parents of us West Enders.  The Arch and the Palace were for the Working Poor, where you got lice and disease, and stayed away from.

In 1957 I was such a movie maven that I saw all the Academy Award nominees.  I remember Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth in Separate Tables.  I didn’t understand at all what it was about, but it was adult, brooding, and had relationships going on that I hoped I would figure out soon.

There was a movie theatre a block off the Yale campus, and there I saw all the Nouvelle Vague art movies of the early Sixties – La Notte, L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour.  I had no idea what these movies were about either – especially L’Avventura, which out of curiosity I saw again a few years ago. It was then, as it was in 1962 a movie about aimless people climbing over the rocks and not a lot more.  Looking back it was a very pretentious movie era.  I am glad, however, that these European auteurs made these movies which intended to be introspective, philosophical, and penetrating and therefore very different from the cinema of the 40s and before.  I enjoy watching those earlier movies, just before my time, and classify them as “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore” films – wonderful melodramas like Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and Dark Victory; or dramas - Casablanca, They Drive by Night, The Maltese Falcon.

In the late 60s I was driving a taxi in New York City, cruising the mean streets, and loving the romantic energy of it all.  The night shift was itself a movie or I made it one.  For the first time in my life, my own life was more exciting than the movies!  I didn’t give up on the cinema, addicted as I was, and went during the day to the double features at the Thalia and the New Yorker on Upper Broadway and the Theatre 30 St. Marks which played Fred Astaire movies and Romantic Comedies of the 40s but also had some serious three-fers.  The most heavy-duty movie watching I ever did at the St. Marks was watching a triple feature of Ingmar Bergman films – not his lighter, more accessible films copied by Woody Allen, but Sign of the Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring, and The Hour of the Wolf.

It was not easy to watch movies in Bombay in 1969.  There were plenty of films playing – Bollywood had been in business for many decades – but very few foreign films.  When any one came to the Regal Cinema near Victoria Station, I went.  I can remember only one – Easy Rider.  I remember it because it was such an iconic film – it was The Sixties – and here I was as far removed from that American experience as possible, but still of that generation.  For two hours, I was on the road with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson, back in the hippy, upstart, rebellious years in the USA.  Walking out into the fetid heat, smells, and oppressive crowds of India was a shock.  I loved India.  It was my greatest adventure.  I would never have changed it for the world; but for those few hours I was back home and missed it.

For the most part India was movie-less.  I went to one or two Hindi movies in Bombay (I remember Aankhen, a Bollywood spy movie that came out in 1968.  It was the hokiest, lamest, and dumbest movie I had ever seen.  Toy pistols, fat mustachioed spies, ugly women, and irrelevant songs sung in the Vale of Kashmir), but quit early.  Who cared?  Like the streets of 2am New York City, India was one big, Cinemascope, Kaleidoscope, Todd-A-O, Sense-A-Round extravaganza.

I caught up on movies in the Seventies – some reprises of the Nouvelle Vague like James Taylor’s Two Lane Blacktop, and my favorite of that era, The French Connection.  I bought the film a few years ago and like to watch it because not only was it filmed on location in the New York (1971) that I knew very well, but that Friedkin used many “stolen scenes” – in film language, shooting on location with no extras, just people going about their business.  The most famous scene is the one where Popeye Doyle is playing cat-and-mouse with Frog I on the subway.

In the mid-Seventies, we went to Latin America, travelling by land from DC to La Paz, and living in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bolivia.  I remember on the long land trip across the altiplano we were so starved for some stimulation after the endless hours of flat, featureless landscapes, we went to see an Indian movie someplace in Peru, maybe Ayacucho.  As hard-up as we were, the Bollywood epic was as predictable, stupid, and indefinably boring as any in India.

In the mid-Eighties, I worked as a staff member at the World Bank in Washington.  I didn’t particularly like my job – I joined for the wrong reasons: it would be an exciting international intellectual environment, with beautiful European, Latin, and Palestinian women.  I was wrong about the stimulating intellectual environment – it turned out to be simply a high-toned but still inefficient bureaucracy – and I couldn’t wait to take as much time out of the office as possible….And the Circle Theatre was only three blocks away.  The Circle Theatre offered double and triple features for a dollar! so what I would do is to go to one, time it to fix the time I had to leave for a meeting; then return the next day at the same time to finish it off.  I saw so many movies that way.  I have always been able to break up movie watching.  I simply pause my internal hard drive and start it up again, no problem.  I didn’t get a lot of work done, needless to say, but my career path had already been decided – have as much fun as possible, use charm, silver tongue, and smarts to do the least work with the greatest recognition.

In the Eighties and Nineties I always went to movies during the day and I never went with anyone else.  Maybe my experience with The Moon is Blue and worrying about Susan Monte’s soul really did a number on me, but I think it is because for me going to a movie is entering my own fantasy world, and I don’t want to have to worry about whether my companion is entering it too.  How could she?  We are all so different.  I would sit in dark, cool, empty theatres, my pick of seats, loving it.

Then came Netflix and the era of 200+ movies per year.  A friend asked me once for some movie recommendations, and I suggested that I just send her a printed out list of my Netflix.  To my surprise, I had watched 223 movies in one year.  Yes, it’s possible, for there were periods when I shut the drapes, cranked on the video and watched triple- or quadruple-features. 

I recently got a message from Netflix saying that my queue was empty.  Never in my years with them had it ever dropped below 30.  In the past year, I have given up all movies except film versions of Shakespeare’s plays.  I am completely obsessed with Shakespeare, and can’t seem to think about or watch anything else.  It is my literary obsessive phase.  Last year I reread all of Faulkner, and after those brilliant works I can no longer read popular fiction.  So now it is Faulkner and Shakespeare and no more Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, William Friedkin, or Robert Altman.  I will watch snippets and even a whole movie when I flip channels on the ads during sporting events, but not deliberately,.

There is only one more piece of the Moviegoer saga.  I have a repertory of my favorite films – The Hustler, Fargo, The Player, Shortcuts, Apocalypse Now, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Deliverance – by the TV.  When I wake up at 3am and can’t go back to sleep, I slip one of these films in the DVD player, turn over, and just listen.  I know every word of dialogue, every shading of every scene.  Hearing the words and the music, I can run the tape in my head.  I can watch the movie on my own headset.  And to the words of Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, or Martin Sheen, I go to sleep.

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