Finding Friends in the Films
“Do you go to the movies? Find a friend in the films?” – “Movies”; The Hothouse Flowers, Home
I learned to love at the movies.
As a kid of about six or seven, I would watch the Sunday morning cartoons on TBS (then called “Channel 17” in Atlanta), which were followed at around 11:00 o’clock by a morning matinee of a classic black and white films. It was here that I first saw Bogey and Bacall, Powell and Loy, Tracy and Hepburn, Astaire and Rogers, Garland, Gable, Lombard, Davis, Crawford, Grant and Olivier. I can remember sitting on the floor in front of the television, slightly sleepy, but riveted to movies whose themes I could barely understand.
It was the look of things that first drew my attention, the mixture of light and shadows combining to create a mood that influenced the story as much as the plot and the acting. Be it the dark shadows and lousy lives of the punished in the noirs, or the bright crystalline glamour of the MSM musicals, where nothing was ever dirty, and every story had a happy ending, the flickering light tripped something inside my subconscious that made me sit up and listen to the tales being told. I didn’t always get what I saw, but I was hooked and knew here was a thing that could teach me something.
As I grew older, my parents would occasionally take the whole family to the cinema, most often to a Disney cartoon, or some flavor of what’s come to be called “family entertainment.” I cried for Bambi’s mother, stirred with the strangest feeling when Tramp nudged his meatball to Lady, and cowered in fear at the sight of the Child Catcher – who haunted my dreams for many, many, years. Thanks to my Sunday morning matinees, however, I was slowly becoming more aware of the adult side of storytelling, and my interest in children’s stories, while still potent (even to this very day) began to slip. I knew there was something more – it seemed as if I wanted to learn about being a grown up before actually becoming one. My heart convinced my mind that the movies were the place to learn these lessons.
So I watched, and watched some more, and gradually learned to watch closely. I was learning to appreciate the other aspects of good movie-making, the nuances of character development, the essential “rightness” of quality screenwriting, and the artificial, yet compelling reality of the acting. Certain actors stood out, Bogey for his world weariness, Tracy for his energy and intelligence, Peter O’Toole for his roguish Irish charm. Almost unknowingly, I began to pattern my mannerisms after my favorite performances. I developed “trailer looks” where I would mimic certain moments from favorite films; looking up under my eyebrows to express suspicion, sideways glances to display distrust, turning down the corners of my mouth when studiously displeased (an homage to De Niro). Even my walks were modeled after the commanding strides of my newfound heroes, accompanied by an imaginary soundtrack that played in my head as my shoes struck the street. I can honestly say that most of my current physical movements have their roots in some cinematic experience or another, but unfortunately, my emotional mannerisms had stunted and stalled.
Still, my viewing continued. I was a completely indiscriminate viewer, having no preconceived no tastes whatsoever. I would watch anything as long as it held my interest, and, as I wasn’t even aware of the whole self-awareness thing, anything was more interesting to me than my own life. I began to grow too attached to the artificial lives I could witness. My greatest fear was the feeling of shame, and any social failure would only reinforce the fear and drive me further into a shell. I tried to compensate for my social timidity by attaching myself to stronger personalities in an effort to live vicariously through through them – my thinking being that I could ride the waves of my friends’ successes, without risking any personal failures. Of course my friends recognized my behavior for what it was, and so I was never really able to make the connections I was beginning to so so sorely desire. It was the worst kind of angst, wanting to be accepted, but lacking the ability to do the things necessary to be accepted. I had an out, though. By the time my teens rolled around, and my social frustration had brought me to the point where I didn’t like anything or anyone around me, I knew I could always “find a friend in the films.” So, I would hop in the car, drive to the local theatre, plop down my meagre money, recline back in the chair and let the flickering lives of others wash over me and teach me a better way to be.
When I was sixteen, corner video were coming into their own (my favorite being a combination video rental/pizza joint named “View and Chew”), and I began consuming more and more titles, discovering new methods of storytelling and introducing myself to foreign films for the very first time. Seeing Fellini’s 8 ½ was a revelation, both for its method of storytelling and its subject matter, which showed me that even grown ups could still be as fickle and foolish as children. I also loved the fact that humor and tragedy could be so closely related and reflected in one another, and I began to hunger for ever more exposure to the emotions that I had previously shunned. Truffaut and Bergman shortly followed, and from them I learned to respect the power of simple humanity in all its flavors. I slowly began to look anew at my friends and acquaintances, coming to appreciate their differences in light of my increasing understanding that we were all just trying to muddle through life as best we could. In essence, I was learning to like people again. I began to smile more.
Finally, at eighteen, I surrendered myself once and for all to the Church of Blessed Illusion and took a part-time job at a local movie theatre. I learned the mechanical workings of the projectors, listening to “old school” projectionists telling stories of arc light fires, exploding xenon bulbs, and slipped spools of film. As my career advanced, I attended exhibitor screenings where “three color” prints were previewed to potential buyers, and patted myself on the back for being “ahead of the game” when the films were finally released to the general public. Come awards season, I knew about all of the political machinations that came into play before the moment the envelopes were opened, and my pick sheets grew ever more accurate. I read criticism and actually started getting it – realizing that a difference of opinion didn’t lessen the reviewer’s qualifications or intellect.
More importantly, I began to talk more closely with the people I worked with, actually getting to know them without fear of them knowing me in return. We would sit around the concession areas between shows, talking about the characters we loved, and coming up with elaborate backstories for them that were really little more than thinly veiled variations on themes present within ourselves. By sharing our love of the movies, we were learning to share our lives with others. Night after night, as I sat with those dear friends, I learned from them. They taught me how to love without condition.
Thanks to the movies, I had learned how to become the person I wanted to be, and for that alone I will be eternally grateful.