Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Cinema Soul

Life as I know it began in the fuzz of an old television screen. Through it I gazed into what felt like projections of dreams, images frozen in a procedure of motion that meant we were free to imagine, to wonder, to long for adventures outside of the monotonous grind. Sometimes those realizations came out of old cartoons, other times sitcoms, and other times old Atari video game cartridges. But movies were something more. They seemed to withstand the erosion of time, of earthly cruelties meant to wither and decay all that was necessary to inform our futures.

I sensed this the first time I saw “The Wizard of Oz,” probably the most important live action film of my youth. For me it was as current as the visual of my schoolmates running across the playground, and made more profound by the belief that those peers could sprout wings and take off midflight if they felt inclined. That, I believe, is one of the primary strengths of a timeless picture: if its images could reach you in a way that blurs the lines between worlds, then they slip past the notion of mere escapism and become extensions of personal experiences. For what seemed like years after I would often reflect on Dorothy’s adventures – in film and in book – and how my own would seem had that cyclone come and carried me away instead. And Oz, as whimsical as other worlds come, felt like the hidden fortress of a backyard daydream that could become tangible with just the right squint of a young eye.

To become aware of this wisdom in a world where my first moviegoeing experiences included “Pinocchio,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “101 Dalmatians” was a blessing of monumental proportions. So rarely do the experiences of going to a theater begin for a child with films that transcend mere wonder, especially now when family-oriented entertainment revolves around bright colors and simplified narratives about diversity and inclusion. That is not to diminish the relationship that today’s children may have with newer films in that vein, but more meant to emphasize the lost art of deeper feeling. As a lover of the medium I could not have been born at a better time: with a rich history behind me, the revolution of technology ahead of me, and in that sweet spot where the values of both converged in ways that informed the deepest recesses of the imagination.

It was the age of “E.T.” – the most emotional of science fiction fantasies – and Indiana Jones, the most optimistic of modern action heroes. Their adventures were the stuff of incredible danger, to be sure, but not the sort that were laced with overreaching fatalism; these were movies that possessed the inkling of forethought, of the knowledge that just as positive outcomes would ultimately overtake the endeavors of the villains, life would endure and move urgently towards happier occasions. Some part of a moviegoer – going off training they received as readers of great books, no doubt – wants to be swept up in the excitement of new worlds and discoveries, and experience the same twinges of fear, self-doubt and danger that tend to populate the sphere of a character’s journey.

Why were movies more powerful as a conduit than any other medium? I remember thinking it was because that’s where people allowed themselves to be the most vulnerable. When a character would laugh or cry, they inspired something in us that was difficult to ignore: a desire (hidden or otherwise) to share each other’s pain or joy. Those bridges were certainly more informed by screen personas that possessed great star qualities. When I saw films in those early years, there were few stars more interesting than Barbra Streisand, who inspired a feeling in others that was strange and magical. There were times when she was on screen that it became a challenge not occasionally move my eyes off the television to gaze at the face of my mother, whose own passions seemed to soar at the sight of her captivating idol.

Through my mom I also learned the greatness of old Hollywood, a world of dreams that permeated the breath of perfectionists. My first encounter with Marilyn Monroe came with a television viewing of “Some Like It Hot,” in which she stole the proverbial spotlight from under two established titans of acting: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. I had no idea that Monroe’s temperament came at the cost of her own sanity (and eventually her own life), otherwise I might have recoiled in shock. But the experiences of “Hot,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Seven-Year Itch” exhibited an energy that eventually transcended notions of time and mortality. I was enamored by how she looked at the camera, overjoyed by the unassuming innocence of her persona in instances of overt sexual gravitas. Some part of my fascination with blondes began on that day – and some would say has even informed my fascination with idols like Madonna, who began her career by essentially molding herself in a similar wisdom.

Some would argue those were not the years to be comprehending the star quality of those sorts, especially in a time when few of their films were considered acceptable for a pre-pubescent. But I think I inherited a love for the medium more for its diverse possibility than anything else. While it is true that youth-oriented fare like “Pinocchio” was probably the most important on my development, a wider selection of themes meant that I was absorbing a broader scope of the world. Through them I was living the life that my parents would shield me from, fearing great dangers (they had their reasons). In the dining room of their first house were three long wooden shelves bolded into the plaster, containing brown video boxes (my father developed his own system) that were filled to the brim with popular household VHS (the Disney films were kept separately for my sister and I in our bedrooms). They say higher than a chair’s length, which meant that for me it was like scaling Mt. Everest to have a chance at pulling them down for my own personal pleasure.

I succeeded. From that shelf I took down a lifetime’s worth of films that became essential to my growth – some good, some bad, others confusing. One of the first was “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” which I loved for being full of danger and excitement. I felt similar twinges with “Romancing the Stone,” and remember having a young affinity for Kathleen Turner. Two movies my older sister enjoyed watching often were “Flashdance” and “Dirty Dancing,” which taught me some important lessons about the use of song on celluloid (although the latter film was never one I admired). The 1976 version of “A Star is Born” added to that observation while amplifying my interest in the Streisand persona, as did “Purple Rain,” containing a musician who I felt strange allure towards. “The NeverEnding Story” was lost in a mishap with an old VCR when I was eight, but its images remained a fresh imprint for years to follow. And my father’s possessions, which mostly included the early James Bond pictures, stupefied my strained eyes; in ways they were instrumental in me discovering a general disinterest in spies firing off guns in crowded rooms, or action so loud that it could be deafening.

On and on the list of enjoyment grew, often including pictures that by most measures would seem pointless or forgettable – “Short Circuit,” about a robot that comes to life; “*batteries not included,” about flying robotic aliens that are sent to earth to repair the apartment building of an old couple while others are trying to tear it down; “My Stepmother is an Alien,” starring Kim Basinger as the most beautiful alien from the far corners of the galaxy; “Big Business,” featuring two sets of twins played by Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin; “Splash,” about a man who falls in love with a woman who may actually be a mermaid, “Harry and the Hendersons,” in which a family in Seattle winds up adopting a creature that turns out to be Big Foot; “Who’s That Girl?”, starring Madonna as the luckiest former criminal in the history of the justice system; “Tootsie,” with Dustin Hoffman dressing up as a woman to get a part on a soap opera; “Revenge of the Nerds,” which contained a moment involving jock straps that still makes me laugh into my 30s; “Top Gun,” credited with some of my very first celebrity crushes; “Fatal Attraction,” which contained the scariest woman I had (up to that point) ever seen on a movie screen; “Willow,” which was far more interesting to me than “Star Wars,” its direct cousin; “The Goonies,” about the greatest adventures I had ever hoped to have as a child; “Home Alone,” the first live action cartoon I remember seeing; “Stand by Me,” which still gives us a good indication of what it might be like to pass the bridge between youthful innocence and adult angst; “The Monster Squad,” an exciting mash-up involving all the old movie monsters; “Poltergeist,” the first horror film I was allowed to watch (and was the subsequent inspiration for my fear of clowns); and “Gremlins,” credited for inspiring my parents to buy me my very first stuffed animal.

And then there were movies so bad that they had few defenders, even from the untrained eye. “The Great Outdoors,” starring John Candy and Dan Akroyd as competitive brothers-in-law on vacation with their families. “Howard the Duck,” about the most annoying puppet in the history of animatronics. “Summer School,” about a bunch of misfits who try to keep their teacher by dressing up in ridiculously violent getups. “Police Academy,” which unwittingly created the first of many false impression of law enforcement. “Dragnet,” a terrible film that ought to have been better had it not been molded in the image of a sub-par television show. “First Blood,” which I would not have seen if I hadn’t snuck in a viewing through a curtain during a warm summer night near the living room. And then there was “Mommie Dearest,” a movie my mother admired that would have warped my view on proper childhood discipline had I not lived in a household that knew of restraint in punishment.

When it comes to the cinema, your soul is rarely colonized by a single experience or event. It comes from long tenures in the dark, where your thoughts are shaped by the images before you. The very first time I entered the theater was when I was four years old, on the arm of a mother who felt it was time to absorb such moments in their purest form. “Pinocchio” was the picture playing down the street from home, which may have been destiny – because I would connect with it in a way that I would with no other animated film for the rest of my life. I remember marveling at the wonder of the Blue Fairy, gifting life from a magic wand. I laughed hysterically at the running gag of Figaro getting into things he shouldn’t; he seemed to me like a cartoon version of my first pet, who had only been with me at the time a few months. I was doubled over in shock when the poor wooden boy was locked into a cage by the menacing Stromboli, felt tears swell as boys turned into donkeys were shipped off screen, and felt my first sense of dread as Geppetto and his son tried so hard to get away from Monstro, the hungry whale with menacing jaws.

I never liked talking at the movies, even as a child, but there was a moment from that first excursion that I remember vividly. While I was squeezing her hand, eyes full of conflicting emotions, I remember saying to her, in a not-so-hushed tone, that “I want to see it again.” She looked over at me and smiled, no doubt pleased by the response she seemed to be hoping for. “It’s fun to watch movies, Dave,” she said. “I hope you remember this day for a long time.” Every time I write about a film, that moment is never far from my thoughts.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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