I am writing this essay because I am in the midst of reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, a review of which will appear soon. Ebert loved films, and he is one of the few film critics (perhaps the only one) whose opinions I respect so much that I seek out his review on his blog after I have seen a film. I’m talking about older films, of course, as Ebert died in 2013. Others have carried on his website, and they do all right, but they don’t have the zing that Ebert’s intelligence, discernment, and movie knowledge gave to his personal analyses of films.
I can’t remember a time when movies didn’t fascinate me. There was no internet back then, nor video recorders. We relied on first-run showings in theaters and reruns on TV. Of course, movie tickets were much cheaper, and so were the snacks such as popcorn, Jujyfruits, and soft drinks I avidly consumed as I watched.
I never just watched, though. I got deeply into them. I absorbed the experience. Even when I was very young, I saw films in terms of script and cinematography. When movies particularly impressed me, I would later recreate them while I was playing, with my blocks as the sets and hard plastic action figures as the characters.
Many memorable movie experiences come to mind as I think back. These are just a sampling.
One evening my father got up from the dinner table and spontaneously said, “Let’s go to a movie!” The kids all erupted in overwhelming approval, while my mother objected on the grounds that it had not been planned. That night we went to see Walt Disney’s Toby Tyler, and I still remember scenes of Toby the circus waif, played by Kevin Corcoran, finally getting his chance under the big top as an acrobat on horses. When we were very young, Disney films were the only movies my parents let my brothers and sisters and I go to theaters to watch, but there were so many of them in those days that they met the need for wonderment. Once we were allowed to expand our range, a movie that impressed me greatly when it first came out, although I was only twelve years old, was David Lean’s adaptation of Doctor Zhivago. I saw it multiple times during its first run in the theaters, and thrilled to its depth of emotion and masterful cinematography.
I’m skipping over many memorable movie experiences, just touching on what first comes to mind. During high school I had a buddy who used to go to movies with me from time to time. One of the best double features we ever attended was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca – a four-hour Bogie fest. Later while I shared accommodation with my old drinking and drug buddy Rolf, when we were broke we would sneak into movies by standing outside the back door and going inside when someone else was exiting. We would then make our way to the front, buy something at the concession stand, and sit down and enjoy the show. That’s how I saw one of my favorites back then, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for the ninth time, also how we got to see a double feature of the original Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
At some point I took off traveling and started living in Europe and Asia, and I watched movies from time to time but not as often. On one of my visits home, my mother took me to see the first Star Wars film. Now it’s known as A New Hope, but back then it was just Star Wars to most people. I had never heard of the film, believe it or not (I had been really out of touch in remote parts of the world), and I also had no idea that my mother was a science fiction aficionado. The film blew me away – totally. It was terrific; it was superlative; it was so much fun. On my next visit, she took me to see The Empire Strikes Back, which had just come out. She was a sweet precious woman.
While I was in southwest India staying in a small hill station up in the mountains, a friend teaching at a private high school asked me to help him chaperone a group of students on a field trip to Bangalore, and while we were there, we went to movies every night. I had another of my unexpected and profound experiences when I went to Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time in an Indian theater. Again, completely blown away. In India, Bangladesh, and later Italy and Greece we began to acquire the new-fangled gadgets known as video tape recorders on which to watch our films, which we rented in video shops. Videos gradually gave way to DVDs, of course.
We rarely went to movies in theaters while I lived overseas. Although the tickets were not unduly expensive, they were nevertheless usually difficult for us to afford. One exception, I remember, was when the first English language showing of a film in years came to Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was Towering Inferno, with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, and every English native speaker I knew went out to see it. Another memorable experience was when, on a visa trip, I saw the James Bond film Moonraker at a theater in Calcutta. The place was so crowded that my friends and I had to sit in the very front row. We really got that film shoved into our faces.
Before I close this picaresque journey through my various film experiences, I must mention the first time I saw The Fellowship of the Rings at a theater in Thessaloniki, Greece. From the moment the movie began, and Galadriel whispers the opening lines in Elvish, I was enchanted and mesmerized. I saw it four times in its first theater run; I couldn’t help it.
My sons and I continue to be enthralled by films. We usually grab some snacks and drinks and watch movies every Friday and Saturday evening – and sometimes more often during the summer. Our tastes are eclectic, although we often argue about what we are in the mood to watch on any given night. The more people watching, the longer the arguments go on. Eventually, though, we all settle down amicably and get lost in another world.