Little was left of the square. The platform had long since collapsed in a cloud of reddish dust. The last to rush past was a woman in a black shawl, carrying the tiny executioner like a larva in her arms. The fallen trees lay flat and reliefless, while those that were still standing, also two-dimensional, with a lateral shading of the trunk to suggest roundedness, barely held on with their branches to the ripping mesh of the sky. Everything was coming apart. Everything was falling. A spinning wind was picking up and whirling; dust, rags, chips of painted wood, bits of gilded plaster, pasteboard bricks, posters; an arid gloom fleeted; and amidst the dust, and the falling things, and the flapping scenery, Cincinnatus made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation To A Beheading, translated from the Russian by Dimitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author, 1959
When I was a kid my dad, whose full-time day job was as a route man for National Foods in Clifton, N.J., had to take on some part-time work for our family to make ends meet. We had just moved from a duplex apartment in Cliffside Park to a whole house in Dumont, and I guess things were a little tight. So on weekend evenings my dad would park cars at Hing's, a very popular Chinese restaurant in Englewood. This had been one of my dad's jobs in high school and hence Mr. Hing, who I recall as looking pretty much exactly like Ho Chi Minh, was kind of an old friend of the family and showed my dad a good amount of kindness. The restaurant was good, too, and attracted a pretty swank clientele—Paul Anka was a lousy tipper, according to father.
So I guess I was somewhere between the first and second grades, that is, somewhere around seven years old, on the Saturday night when my mom, with whom I was not particularly pally at that time, suspended my bed time on account of an odd request. She wanted me to stay up with her while she watched a movie, because she didn't want to watch the movie alone, because it was a movie that was apt to frighten her.
I should point out that my mom was not yet thirty at the time; more in the mid-twenties range. My folks had married very young, and I was their first child, which is the only reason her request to me made any kind of sense, although it didn't really make any kind of sense to me at the time really. When I say my mother and I weren't pally at the time, I'm merely being matter-of-fact about our relationship, whose circumstances were circumscribed by the condition of her being in her mid-twenties, my dad being the consciously "easygoing" figure where parenting was concerned, and my mother's kinda hardcore Italian-American perspective about running a household. This perspective was difficult to negotiate around the fact that I was a bit of a problem child, which I don't mean in a cute way; I was very poorly socialized and it was suspected for some time that I had some developmental issues, to the extent that my grammar school gym teacher had gotten the notion that I was "spastic," which notion, once articulated to my parents, resulted in, among other things, me getting a bunch of EEG tests, and undergoing therapy, and stuff.
To make a long story shorter, I was of the opinion at the time that my mother didn't like me very much, and so I was kind of staggered that she was asking me to watch a movie with her. I did not in any way relate to her as a young woman who was anxious about watching a horror movie. On the other hand, I was being offered a free stay-up-late card. And I kind of liked movies. My parents, young Americans that they still were, enjoyed jaunts to the drive-in, and made them pretty frequently, and while my sister, one year my junior, and my brother, four years so, actually slept, I would lie on my stomach craning my neck, gazing up surreptitiously from the turned-down back seat of our Ford Country Squire station wagon, and I would see certain images that stuck with me, such as that of a pie-eyed man in a gray suit trying not to drive a fancy car off of the edge of a cliff.
So. My mom and I stayed up and watched The Haunting, which, it seems worth mentioning in this climate, at the time was hardly an "old" movie. And, panned-and-scanned and interrupted by commercials as it was, it scared the bejeesus out of both of us. I remember the weird talking woodwork did not look like any "ghost" that I was used to from the Washington Irving and Poe stories I had tentatively looked into in the school library. I was particularly galvanized by a shot that seemed to have been taken from a prone position on the floor of the haunted house, looking up to a secret attic door that suddenly opened to reveal the screaming face of a traumatized woman. I remember asking my mom why she was screaming—I did not have the plot-following facilities that I eventually developed—and I remember her trying to explain it, and that trying to explain it took her out of being pretty frightened herself.
I did not immediately try to make my way toward beings akin to me. But I found a couple, in time. This kid Alan who lived across the other side of town, and who had a book with some neat pictures in it, called An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, which I borrowed from him and never gave back. I read up on The Haunting in there; its author, Carlos Clarens, actually disapproved of it, and deplored the "use of anamorphic lenses and film stock instead of allowing the horror to develop from the everyday, the horror of existence which helped make the mysterious beauty and attraction of the Lewton films." I did not know from these "Lewton films," but what Clarens wrote about them made me want to find out. Similarly, it was in Clarens' book that I first came to know the names of Losey and Godard; Clarens was kind of sneaky that way.
I met another kid, Joseph, who liked to draw pictures of the monsters from old Universal horror pictures. He was a very shy kid, and underneath the quiet lurked a truly delightful sense of humor. I remember he had this Marvel comics coloring book, featuring Captain America and Nick Fury, one of those narrative coloring books in which each of the to-be-colored pages advanced the story. The final page was a drawing of Captain America and Nick Fury shaking hands, and the caption below read "We did it again, Nick!" And in marker on that page Joseph drew a horizon line behind the two figures, and on that line, between the men, a mushroom cloud. We spent almost every weekend at the Palace theater in Bergenfield watching whatever movie played there, and most of our non-homework-doing waking hours (which, for me at least, were bountiful, because I was an abysmal student) watching movies on television. In seventh or eighth grade, in gym class, sitting out yet another softball game, I was telling Joseph about my weekend plans, such as they were; through some unusual circumstance, I had actually been invited to a party; but, I glibly said to my friend, "I'm not gonna stay too late because Psycho is on Channel 9 at eleven." Our gym teacher, Coach M, who liked to regale his favored students with tales of his antics on the '63 Mets farm team, overheard me and riposted, "What kinda party, Kenny? All boys?" Oh, the humanity.
And the time not spent doing all that we spent on the phone. "Why don't you and Joseph ever talk about anything real?" my mother asked me once, after I got off the line with him one day. I didn't have the wherewithal to formulate an answer, and I was slightly hurt that she didn't know it herself.
The second time I saw The Haunting was in the very early '70s, in my first or second year of high school. There was this guy who was not a whole lot older than the rest of us, this character named Nelson, who ran the A/V department at the high school, and was very up on current equipment and had a couple of Sony Portapaks in his office, as well as a videotape recorder with which he could record stuff off of the television. And one afternoon after classes he invited a couple of the more cinema-sensitive students of his acquaintance to join him and an aspring filmmaker friend of his to watch The Haunting. And it was kind of great because with the tape we could stop, and go back, and look at particular scenes again and again, and zip forward through commercials and such. And Nelson, a big, voluble guy, was a lot of fun to watch a movie with, his appreciation was so palpable. "What a shot!" he bellowed when Russ Tamblyn, frightened at the shifting woodwork, dropped his whiskey bottle (as seen in the screen cap above.)
And so it went. In 1978, at the funeral of a mutual friend who had been killed by a drunk driver, I met the person I refer to on this blog as My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™, and the first thing that I said to him was, "I hear you can recite all the dialogue from King Kong by heart." And he looked at me as if I had just taken a dump on the floor and said, "I don't think this is the appropriate occasion for that." But he got over it and soon he was introducing me to the joys of Dario Argento, going to the blighted Plaza Theater in Paterson to see Suspiria, out of which the projectionist that night dropped an entire reel, to little discernable effect on the film's coherence.
I introduced Ron to Joseph, and I remember in the fall of 1980, after we had all seen The Shining something like nine times already (it had become our default social activity: "Whaddya wanna do tonight?" "I dunno, whaddya YOU wanna do?" "How about The Shining?" "Why not?"), Cinema Village had paired it with Kubrick's much earlier The Killing, and we all went to check that out. There were a couple of likely lads in line behind us discussing the ins and outs of Clint Eastwood's directorial career. "It was only with Play Misty For Me that he began to find his water level," one of them said, a bit too loudly, and Joseph smirked at me and said, "It'd be kind of great if Eastwood just kind of popped up now like McLuhan in Annie Hall, only in Dirty Harry mode, and asked 'What do you know about my films, punk?'" After the films we heard one of the same guys call the pairing "an instructive double bill." He was right, but still.
I turned 53 this year. Although you might not be able to discern this from my Twitter feed, but I've become a reasonably well-socialized adult. While a foot injury kind of screwed up my routine earlier this year, I try to stay physically fit. I even take boxing lessons, intemittently, and my trainer sometimes gives me a compliment that I can actually believe. My relationship with my mom is, among other things, pally. I write about movies, and about music sometimes, for a living, and I like doing that and I'd like to continue doing that, though I'd also like to do other things. This Saturday I'm gonna get up early (which is one reason My Lovely Wife, who likes her Saturday snooze [not that I don't], may not accompany me) and go to Penn Station and take a train to Suffern, New York, right across the Jersey border, and I'm gonna go to the Lafayette Theatre and see an 11 a.m. screening of a new 35mm print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's great film The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. The Lafayette is managed by Nelson Page, the one-time A/V coordinator of Dumont High School. Overseeing a theater such as the Lafayette, a 1920s beauty kitted out with a full Wurlitzer organ, was a dream of his from before I ever met him. Running the projector will be Nelson's associate and rep curator Pete, who is also a longtime friend of Joseph's. Pete is both an ace cinephile and a tech genius, and I was happy, earlier this year, to be able to introduce him to another tech genius, Larry Blake, the sound engineer who's worked with Stephen Soderbergh since BEFORE sex, lies, and videotape, and who Bertrand Tavernier heaped much praise on when I interviewed Tavernier some time ago. (Blake helped Tavernier a lot on his ultimately ill-fated, in the U.S. at least, English-language film In The Electric Mist.) Larry and I had a great time at the Lafayette in May for Lang's The Woman In The Window, and I hope to get him up to the theater again while he's in town for something this rep season, which is looking very good. As for this Saturday, Joseph will be in attendance too, and as it happens, My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™, who incidentally has since renounced all things Argento (he mentions "the pornography of violence," I tell him that he's lost it, and then we move on), has just moved to a house pretty close to Suffern, so he might join the gang. The movie is sure to look great on the Lafayette screen, and afterwards, if there's time, the bunch of us may grab a bite down the street at the frankly mediocre pizza place that has the assets of being roomy and convenient and quick. I'm not sure what we'll all talk about, but I'm reasonably sure it won't be "the death of movie culture."