Sunday, June 10, 2012

Falling in Love with the Dark

I love the movies.

Despite the annoyances that have plagued the movie-going experience, from the sticky floors and shredded seats of the 1970s to today's cell-phone-addicted teens--I still enjoy going to the movie theater to watch a movie.

It's the whole shared experience thing: Comedies are funnier in a crowd, even a crowd of strangers, where laughter can spread epidemically. Tear-jerkers are sadder in a community setting. Adventure tales are more rousing. Cartoons are brighter. It's all better in a theater.

My love of the movies can be traced--you guessed it--to when I was a kid.

My birthday is in December. Two days after Christmas, in fact. And that calendaric curse made it difficult for my parents to keep up with presents; after all, if Santa has just brought your heart's desire on December 25, what's left for December 27?

So they happened on the idea of turning my birthday into a chance to see a big-screen movie, downtown, in the mammoth movie palaces that were still hanging on (often by a thread) in the mid- to late-1960s. We would drive to the city, park the car, and wend our way into the theater. Afterward, we went out to eat, which was a major event because my frugal mother had a severe anti-restaurant bias, meaning that if she had invested the funds to keep our cupboards stocked at home, she saw no real reason to eat out.

All of which made my birthday a very big deal. Exactly the point.

My recollection of these experiences is that we always entered with the movie in medias res. Our selected feature had already started. We'd sit, the five of us, in the dark and try to catch up on the plot, but considering the epic was usually the latest animated gem from the Disney Studios, it wasn't that tough to figure out.

Why the movie was already in progress when we entered is a mystery to me. I used to think that movies back then were on a continuous-run schedule, playing on an endless loop through which audiences cycled every two hours or so.

The only other alternative is that we were late, but I'm discounting that explanation. Dad, an ex-Navy man, was never late for anything.

Regardless, we'd sit in front of a massive screen and give ourselves over to the color and whimsy and magic.

But when the film ended, I can remember complaining that we'd missed the beginning. And so we would beg Mom: "Can we stay 'til we came in?" Translation: can we watch from the opening credits to the point where we had entered and sat?

And the answer was a uniform yes. But once we reached that point, there was always a hushed discussion in the dark about whether we could stay beyond that point.

And in that begging and pleading, I remember the answer usually being a yes as well.

So I believe that is why a lot of the details of those films live so large in my memory: I saw them not once, but really, one and a half times.

The impact of this exposure didn't really make itself known to me until years later, when the era of videocassettes dawned and, as parents, we were treating our own kids to the animated Disney classics we had grown up on ourselves. In a viewing of The Jungle Book, I found myself quoting dialog, verbatim, that I hadn't heard since its original release in 1968. But that 1.5x through the film as a six year old apparently etched the details on my brain.

We had a local neighborhood theater, The Waverly, which was close enough to our home that the distance was walkable. I was a frequent attendee at The Waverly. Its better days were long behind it, but it still, as I recall, had a grand chandelier and an impressively wide screen, albeit stained here and there and bearing a hole or two from a raucously tossed Jujubee.

The Waverly still went through the motions of big-time movie presentations of its forebears, as the management continued to post lobby cards outside the box office. We would stare at these with wild anticipation of the mysteries they represented to unfold inside, and on the way out, they were one final reminder of the eye-popping stories we had beheld.

Dad loved movies. He was a big comedy fan, and would shake the house with his laughter when our TV stations ran the short films of W.C. Fields, the Pink Panther anthology, or the mega-farce It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Mom loved musicals, be they the sappy boy-meets-girl fare of the 1940s or the Broadway adaptations like The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady.

I remember watching retrospectives with them, chronicling movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and I was amazed that they could rattle of stars and roles without hesitation. Mom was an ace in ID'ing the particulars of the clips in That's Entertainment, and she'd call out names I'd never even heard of: Ann Miller, Rudy Vallee, John Gavin, Cyd Charisse.

Wanting to emulate their expertise, I decided to go to school on these people and their roles, and I began working my way through various filmographies, scanning the TV pages for a musical or a drama that I'd never seen before.

I remember having seen the infamous dance sequence Gene Kelly does in Singin in the Rain, tapping his way through a downpour, but I had never seen the entire film. Until our local PBS station ran it as part of a fundraising event. They ran Singin in the Rain at least a dozen times during that pledge drive, and I was drawn to every showing. I was amazed that the movie was so much more than one classic sequence; the entire film was a gem!

I took that experience and ran with it, discovering that Gone with the Wind, for example, was so much more than "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." And that Fantasia had a whole lot more to offer than just dancing mushrooms. And that Casablanca was full of great scenes, not just the one involving "As Time Goes By."

I ate up entire genres. Courtroom dramas, where Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind came into my consciousness. Westerns, where John Wayne in Rio Bravo leapt to the top of my favorites list. Hitchcock. Abbott and Costello. Fred Astaire. Cary Grant. Audrey Hepburn. Orson Welles. Robert Wise. Boris Karloff. Frank Capra. Their gifts and talents were all opened up to me.

I also started to gain appreciation for the current giants in the industry. I was 12 when a summer blockbuster--a little fish story called Jaws--took the country by storm. I was declared too young to see it, but my elder brothers were allowed, and I remember them emerging, shaken, from the theater at the Jersey shore (!) where they had braved the tale. The following December, I was finally taken to see Jaws by my parents, when it reached the $1 movies. I loved it and screamed along with the rest of the audience, even though the frosty temperatures outside made the possibility of being involved in a wayward shark attack quite distant. Dad laughed through the entire film, calling it "A rip off of Moby Dick."

Which I then put on my t0-see list.

The following year, we had Star Wars, and my 13-year-old self had never beheld such an engaging spectacle. I joined the legions of fans in line to view this space opera again and again, jumping to my feet and cheering the heroes at the destruction of the Death Star.

I'm fairly willing to say that that kind of phenomenon is virtually lost in the movies today. My Dad used to tell the story of seeing The Wizard of Oz upon its initial release, and he tried to explain the Aaa's that accompanied the transformation of  black and white Kansas to Technicolor Oz, but it never quite translated. 

The same goes for me as I try to explain the wonder and awe associated with the first episode of Star Wars on the summer screens of 1977. Today's audiences, who can watch blockbusters on their cell phone screens while waiting in line at the supermarket, just don't seem to get it.

The movies have changed a lot since then. IMAX brings back some of the jaw-dropping scope of those mega-hits of the late 1960s and early 1970s (I was scared to death at the tidal  wave in The Poseidon Adventure, sure that the tsunami was going to come right off the screen and sweep me away). And the latest edition of the 3D craze continues to prove that everything old is new again, especially in Hollywood.

And certainly the convenience of DVDs makes it possible to see many a long-forgotten treasure at home, in pristine condition, saved from oblivion by cutting-edge technology.

But how fun it would be to walk once more to The Waverly. Enter its doors and feel that rush of air-cooled luxury, especially appreciated after walking there on a scorching summer afternoon. A pause at the lobby cards to preview today's attraction. A schlump down into a comfortable seat. And wait for it... wait for it.... wait for it.... There it is: The lights are starting to dim and that football-field-sized velvet curtain is parting in the middle.

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