Origin Story (or, Confessions of a Movie Geek)

Last week in my griping about superhero origin stories, I promised to offer up my own origin story, the explanation of how I came to be the way I am today.  Every story has a beginning.  Mine, naturally enough, starts in childhood–

No.  That’s wrong.  Mine starts even earlier than that.  I began collecting movies before I was born.

I came by my passion honestly. My mother, growing up in the 1950s, saved her allowance up to buy this Bell and Howell 8mm movie projector:

Bell and Howell projector

And before you ask, let me say it is still in working order. I couldn’t spare my mom from cancer, but I could keep her stupid machine running. The world doesn’t always work the way it should.

I don’t recall the first movie I watched on this device, in the same way that I don’t recall the first meal I ever ate or the first time I ever slept. It was just part of the infrastructure of my life. But for arguments sake I can say it was this–

Keystone Hotel

Because I do remember that Keystone Hotel was the first movie I was permitted to thread up and project on my own (this was a big rite of passage, as momentous as getting a drivers’ license).

Other films I have had in my collection since those days in the early 1970s include The Thing From Another World, Godzilla vs The Thing, Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing Gravy, Charlie Chaplin in The New Janitor . . . My mom had good taste.

Movies!

These copies ran but a few minutes, were usually in B&W, and typically were silent. It was a format that worked well for silent comedies, but it didn’t really matter. Whatever you watched, it’d have the aesthetics of a silent comedy. I was really disoriented when I finally saw the full-length Thing, which was much more dialog-oriented than I’d assumed.

The Thing

The advent of Super 8 made it possible to obtain movies in longer formats, with color and sound and improved picture quality, but even still the norm was reductionism.

I managed to talk my parents into buying me Star Wars on Super 8. It cost $50 (at least that’s what I remember) in 1981. It ran about 10 minutes, but was in color and sound. I loved it, and yes I still have it.

Star Wars

Here’s the thing about it: it was a souvenir. That’s all any of these were–souvenirs of movies. Like a soundtrack album, or novelization, they were totems by which to remind oneself of a happy experience at the movies.

So much gets said these days about the decrepit conditions in American theaters. Oh, pity, the projection isn’t always good, and people in theaters these days talk too much and text during the movie. Boo hoo.

Give me a break. Even the crummiest theatrical experience today beats the 1970s experience hands down. The vast majority of movies I saw back then I saw at the drive-in. If we had a working speaker where we parked, it was a special night.

I saw Empire Strikes Back and ET at the Cardinal Theater, which had the clever idea of having the lobby doors open directly into the screening room. This meant that every time somebody arrived late or left the auditorium to go to the restroom or to get a snack, their silhouette would be superimposed across the screen at 100x life-size, as the blazing North Carolina sunshine poured in through the doorway.

I saw The Thing (the John Carpenter version) and a revival of Forbidden Planet at the Rialto, where if you sat still too long your feet would become stuck to the floor. Half the seats came off their hinges and fell to the floor if you sat down too fast.

I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a theater on the NC State campus that didn’t bother to soundproof their rooms, so every movie came with the soundtrack of every other movie playing at the same time.

You know, for that matter, 9 out of 10 movies I saw in that era, I saw at the drive in.

Drive In

(sorry–the picture above is a generic image I took off someone else’s blog.  I don’t have any photos of the drive-in from my childhood.  Consider it reasonably representative, though)

But it never occurred to me complain. I cherish each of these experiences, and consider these among my favorite films. The terrible theatrical presentation didn’t hinder them, because back in those days I was the supplicant, the beggar. These movies had power over me because I couldn’t control how or when I saw them. If I didn’t allow my feet to stick to the floor when I watched The Thing, I just wasn’t going to see The Thing. If I objected to seeing The Empire Strikes Back with the enormous silhouettes of other patrons blasting unasked onto the screen, I had the option of just not seeing the movie.

Even the advent of videotapes didn’t change this dynamic right away. I still have the very first videotape I ever bought–

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Like Star Wars, I remember it as being a $50 indulgence, hard won in in 1980s dollars. The picture quality is “variable” in the lingo of the business (read: not good). The image is panned and scanned. There are no bonus features. It takes a couple of minutes when you’re done watching it to rewind back to the beginning.

Eventually, though, the quality of home video got better and better. The day came when you could enjoy at home a quality of presentation that rivaled or excelled that of any theater, when the home-use version could be longer or better or more artistically authentic than the version you could see theatrically. And that tipped the scale completely.

I have several DVD players. I have a Blu Ray player. But for the most part I now watch movies on my iPad.

Batman in my hand

Let me rephrase that: I hold the movie in one hand, and control at will when it starts and stops, and enjoy it in total privacy and solitude. In one sense this is the logical end point of a boy who grew up threading strips of celluloid through a projector so he could claim mastery over the medium that enthralled him. But I can’t pretend that this transition hasn’t radically changed my relationship to movies.

I don’t recall ever not liking a movie in my youth. Maybe I was an uncritical kid, too easily pleased. Maybe I was especially adept at choosing what I would go see. But I tend to think that it had to do with how much I had to do and pay and endure to see what I wanted to see.

Movie poster

Let’s go back to that 1981 encounter with The Thing at the Rialto. My friend Mark and I had to navigate our way across multiple city buses to get there–we were 11 years old and our parents wouldn’t have let us go to an R rated movie if they knew what we were doing. We talked our way past the ticket taker (we were regulars there, and what did they care as long as we paid?), and then wait a couple of hours because we couldn’t correctly time our arrival. As I mentioned, the theater itself was a decrepit pit, which is kind of an insult to decrepit pits. After all that, I was determined to enjoy that movie!

You hold a movie in your hand, like a magazine, and it becomes disposable. Few contemporary movies have captured my attention and imagination as thoroughly as anything I saw in my younger days, and I’m not sure the blame lies in the movies so much as it lies in how I encounter them.

36 Responses Origin Story (or, Confessions of a Movie Geek)
Posted By Tom S : September 3, 2011 6:13 am

There’s a Godard quote from the early 80s about videocasettes, that he loved them because as soon as he had one and could hold it in his hand, he never actually had to watch the movie again. It’s obviously a line of wry irony, but there is something about the permanence of owning a movie that makes actually watching it less of an event.

That’s one of the reasons I go out to see repertory screenings of any movie I like, even if it’s a digital projection and I have it on Blu-ray. As with hearing one of your favorite songs on the radio, the sense that it’s being run by someone else and will continue regardless of whether you pay attention makes experiencing it a shared even, and a much more specific moment.

One of my favorite movies- if not my absolute favorite- is Lawrence of Arabia, and though I’ve owned it on DVD for close to a decade now I’ve only actually watched the DVD once- because the definitive viewing of the movie will always be the time I saw it at Trinity College with my dad, when I was 16 or 17. It was one of the first times I was ever really electrified by a movie, and I worry that becoming more familiar with the film itself would detract from that experience.

Posted By Tom S : September 3, 2011 6:13 am

There’s a Godard quote from the early 80s about videocasettes, that he loved them because as soon as he had one and could hold it in his hand, he never actually had to watch the movie again. It’s obviously a line of wry irony, but there is something about the permanence of owning a movie that makes actually watching it less of an event.

That’s one of the reasons I go out to see repertory screenings of any movie I like, even if it’s a digital projection and I have it on Blu-ray. As with hearing one of your favorite songs on the radio, the sense that it’s being run by someone else and will continue regardless of whether you pay attention makes experiencing it a shared even, and a much more specific moment.

One of my favorite movies- if not my absolute favorite- is Lawrence of Arabia, and though I’ve owned it on DVD for close to a decade now I’ve only actually watched the DVD once- because the definitive viewing of the movie will always be the time I saw it at Trinity College with my dad, when I was 16 or 17. It was one of the first times I was ever really electrified by a movie, and I worry that becoming more familiar with the film itself would detract from that experience.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 3, 2011 11:23 am

I do not remember disliking any movies as a kid either. Maybe because it was such an event just to go. Being one of four kids, my parents not having a lot of money, it was an event. The most momentous was seeing The Empire Strikes Back on opening weekend. My whole family, all six of us, stood on the sidewalk outside the theatre in Atlanta for what seemed like hours. The movie was tremendous, especially for a 5 year old boy. My parents never went to a movie on opening weekend again after that. Pity. That’s when I prefer to see them. I like a crowded theater.

I think I’ve only watched Lawrence of Arabia once on DVD too. I don’t have a great story about seeing it (I watched it alone at home), but I have been waiting to watch it with my nephew. It’s hard to get almost 4 hours of his time these days. But, having it on DVD, I can watch it at any time. I love that.

David- That machine looks great! You certainly have kept it up.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 3, 2011 11:23 am

I do not remember disliking any movies as a kid either. Maybe because it was such an event just to go. Being one of four kids, my parents not having a lot of money, it was an event. The most momentous was seeing The Empire Strikes Back on opening weekend. My whole family, all six of us, stood on the sidewalk outside the theatre in Atlanta for what seemed like hours. The movie was tremendous, especially for a 5 year old boy. My parents never went to a movie on opening weekend again after that. Pity. That’s when I prefer to see them. I like a crowded theater.

I think I’ve only watched Lawrence of Arabia once on DVD too. I don’t have a great story about seeing it (I watched it alone at home), but I have been waiting to watch it with my nephew. It’s hard to get almost 4 hours of his time these days. But, having it on DVD, I can watch it at any time. I love that.

David- That machine looks great! You certainly have kept it up.

Posted By JeffH : September 3, 2011 12:40 pm

I have fond memories of going to movies with my parents-the earliest one I can remember really watching was THE MUSIC MAN at our local drive-in, and to show how truly naive I was, I thought we would be watching the record of the music spinning around while we listened to it! The next one I remember clearly was SON OF FLUBBER, mostly because we used to watch MY THREE SONS and I remember wondering what Fred McMurray was doing in this movie being someone else…

I also got into film collecting for about fifteen years, as a direct result of joining the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel & Hardy group. My first meeting was at a member’s house, and I was amazed at his private film collection, which included LOST HORIZON, KING KONG (the original, good versions of both) and tons of cartoons and short comedies. Soon I was scraping together whatever pennies I could spare to get my own films and by the time I got out of the hobby I had acquired films like SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, 1941 and lots of WB cartoons, silent films and even some TV shows (I got out of the hobby mostly because I just did not have a place to show them anymore.).

I got into home video with VHS HiFi and putting together my own home theater. Yes, I was even into laserdiscs which looked good even on my 27-inch TV, and have now graduated to a 50-inch plasma, a Blu-Ray player, a 6.1 surround system, an HD DVR and hundreds of movies which I have loved for years in albums.

Whew!

For me, the ultimate viewing experiences were the following: NAPOLEON at Radio City Music Hall in 1981 with live orchestra and organ, three projectors running the tryptich at the end and 6,000 of us cheering our heads off at the end; RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at a sneak preview with a 2/3 filled house with all of us wondering what the hell we were about to see and totally hyped up when we left; THE BIG TRAIL when the motion picture Academy screened the widescreen restoration and watching Patrick Wayne wide-eyed in wonder at watching his father make his leading man debut; and having Lillian Gish occasionally grasping my arm during a screening of WAY DOWN EAST at my alma mater, when she dedicated a theater there named after she and her sister.

That’s what movies are all about, man.

Posted By JeffH : September 3, 2011 12:40 pm

I have fond memories of going to movies with my parents-the earliest one I can remember really watching was THE MUSIC MAN at our local drive-in, and to show how truly naive I was, I thought we would be watching the record of the music spinning around while we listened to it! The next one I remember clearly was SON OF FLUBBER, mostly because we used to watch MY THREE SONS and I remember wondering what Fred McMurray was doing in this movie being someone else…

I also got into film collecting for about fifteen years, as a direct result of joining the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel & Hardy group. My first meeting was at a member’s house, and I was amazed at his private film collection, which included LOST HORIZON, KING KONG (the original, good versions of both) and tons of cartoons and short comedies. Soon I was scraping together whatever pennies I could spare to get my own films and by the time I got out of the hobby I had acquired films like SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, 1941 and lots of WB cartoons, silent films and even some TV shows (I got out of the hobby mostly because I just did not have a place to show them anymore.).

I got into home video with VHS HiFi and putting together my own home theater. Yes, I was even into laserdiscs which looked good even on my 27-inch TV, and have now graduated to a 50-inch plasma, a Blu-Ray player, a 6.1 surround system, an HD DVR and hundreds of movies which I have loved for years in albums.

Whew!

For me, the ultimate viewing experiences were the following: NAPOLEON at Radio City Music Hall in 1981 with live orchestra and organ, three projectors running the tryptich at the end and 6,000 of us cheering our heads off at the end; RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at a sneak preview with a 2/3 filled house with all of us wondering what the hell we were about to see and totally hyped up when we left; THE BIG TRAIL when the motion picture Academy screened the widescreen restoration and watching Patrick Wayne wide-eyed in wonder at watching his father make his leading man debut; and having Lillian Gish occasionally grasping my arm during a screening of WAY DOWN EAST at my alma mater, when she dedicated a theater there named after she and her sister.

That’s what movies are all about, man.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 3, 2011 7:15 pm

Holy cow, Jeff! You’ve watched movies with both Patrick Wayne and Lillian Gish? I envy you, sir.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 3, 2011 7:15 pm

Holy cow, Jeff! You’ve watched movies with both Patrick Wayne and Lillian Gish? I envy you, sir.

Posted By JeffH : September 3, 2011 7:29 pm

Lillian Gish-yes; Patrick Wayne-he was one row back and about six seats away; so, maybe I watched with him, but the real thrill was the look on his face as he saw his old man in his early 20′s just take over the big screen like he was born to do that.

One of the things I love about the home theater we have is that I can have people over to share the experience like I remember it back in that basement at my parents house, only with better sound and without the furnace kicking on from time to time.

Thank you for the envy, Duke.

Posted By JeffH : September 3, 2011 7:29 pm

Lillian Gish-yes; Patrick Wayne-he was one row back and about six seats away; so, maybe I watched with him, but the real thrill was the look on his face as he saw his old man in his early 20′s just take over the big screen like he was born to do that.

One of the things I love about the home theater we have is that I can have people over to share the experience like I remember it back in that basement at my parents house, only with better sound and without the furnace kicking on from time to time.

Thank you for the envy, Duke.

Posted By Soheila : September 3, 2011 7:58 pm

Ya know I always enjoy walking through someone’s life cinematically. By the way I’m forcing all of my friends to watch the original The Thing from Another Planet before we hit The new The Thing in the theaters :p I find it hilarious to force them to see the originals of any remake.

Posted By Soheila : September 3, 2011 7:58 pm

Ya know I always enjoy walking through someone’s life cinematically. By the way I’m forcing all of my friends to watch the original The Thing from Another Planet before we hit The new The Thing in the theaters :p I find it hilarious to force them to see the originals of any remake.

Posted By Jenni : September 3, 2011 10:27 pm

JeffH, I went to a college in OH that has a theatre named after Lillian Gish, is the college you went to in OH also? If so, small world!

Posted By Jenni : September 3, 2011 10:27 pm

JeffH, I went to a college in OH that has a theatre named after Lillian Gish, is the college you went to in OH also? If so, small world!

Posted By dukeroberts : September 3, 2011 10:45 pm

Soheila- You’re doing them a favor, though they may not know it.

Posted By dukeroberts : September 3, 2011 10:45 pm

Soheila- You’re doing them a favor, though they may not know it.

Posted By JeffH : September 3, 2011 11:12 pm

Jenni-the college I went to in Ohio was Bowling Green State University, and I was there from ’79-’83. I was a Film Studies major then a grad ass in the Popular Culture for two years then one year as a Grad Fellow in the R-TV-F department. I used to introduce the retrospective films on Wed-Thurs in Gish and I programmed that series for two years, along with running the campus films program for two summers.

And what were you doing there, and when were you there?

Posted By JeffH : September 3, 2011 11:12 pm

Jenni-the college I went to in Ohio was Bowling Green State University, and I was there from ’79-’83. I was a Film Studies major then a grad ass in the Popular Culture for two years then one year as a Grad Fellow in the R-TV-F department. I used to introduce the retrospective films on Wed-Thurs in Gish and I programmed that series for two years, along with running the campus films program for two summers.

And what were you doing there, and when were you there?

Posted By Jenni : September 4, 2011 10:57 pm

Jeff,
Yes, I am a grad of BGSU, went there from 1983-87, earned my bachelors of education, elementary ed major. I only recall going to one of the campus films, The Graduate. A guy who’s goal was to be a lobbyist/lawyer invited me to see it as he had heard me say I’d never seen it before. Did you program it? I do believe there is an Eva Marie Saint theatre on campus now, as she was a grad of good old BGSU. :)

Posted By Jenni : September 4, 2011 10:57 pm

Jeff,
Yes, I am a grad of BGSU, went there from 1983-87, earned my bachelors of education, elementary ed major. I only recall going to one of the campus films, The Graduate. A guy who’s goal was to be a lobbyist/lawyer invited me to see it as he had heard me say I’d never seen it before. Did you program it? I do believe there is an Eva Marie Saint theatre on campus now, as she was a grad of good old BGSU. :)

Posted By JeffH : September 5, 2011 1:23 am

We showed THE GRADUATE my first year there-had to have a second show in Gish due to overflow. If you saw it there after the summer of 1984 it was not programmed by me, but you saw a great film. I think the Saint theater is what used to be Main Auditorium-have a lot of fond memories of that venue. I was projectionist for the summer film series in there when a new 16mm projector was installed and it was a great hall then. If that is not it then they must have renamed the Math/Science theaters, which were horrible little theaters but great sightlines.

Posted By JeffH : September 5, 2011 1:23 am

We showed THE GRADUATE my first year there-had to have a second show in Gish due to overflow. If you saw it there after the summer of 1984 it was not programmed by me, but you saw a great film. I think the Saint theater is what used to be Main Auditorium-have a lot of fond memories of that venue. I was projectionist for the summer film series in there when a new 16mm projector was installed and it was a great hall then. If that is not it then they must have renamed the Math/Science theaters, which were horrible little theaters but great sightlines.

Posted By Jenni : September 5, 2011 8:02 am

Jeff, I do now remember that I also saw Metropolis, the classic German film, with one of my friend’s, her art teacher had urged their class to go and see it.

Posted By Jenni : September 5, 2011 8:02 am

Jeff, I do now remember that I also saw Metropolis, the classic German film, with one of my friend’s, her art teacher had urged their class to go and see it.

Posted By Heidi : September 6, 2011 12:23 pm

Back in the day when I lived in small town, Illinois, our property was across a corn field (not kidding) from the drive in theater. I remember taking my lawn chairs and sitting on one side of our pond and watching whatever movie they were showing that night. It was too far away for sound, but that didn’t matter, we would make up dialog ourselves. It was especially creepy when the corn was growing. Corn makes noises, so it was like sound effects at times. A puff of wind would move a stalk and the monster on the screen seemed to be coming right for you. I don’t know now what movies we watched that way, but I seem to recall that they were mostly monster movies. One wasn’t-it had a lot of dialog and not much action, and I remember we got bored and went inside and watched the Three Stooges instead. I can’t remember if they were just on tv or if we had them on tape…Beta..thank you very much! Still have the player and video camera for that.
I don’t recall ever actually going to the drive in to watch a movie. I am sure we did at least once, but all I remember is the late nights at the pond watching silent monster movies.

Posted By Heidi : September 6, 2011 12:23 pm

Back in the day when I lived in small town, Illinois, our property was across a corn field (not kidding) from the drive in theater. I remember taking my lawn chairs and sitting on one side of our pond and watching whatever movie they were showing that night. It was too far away for sound, but that didn’t matter, we would make up dialog ourselves. It was especially creepy when the corn was growing. Corn makes noises, so it was like sound effects at times. A puff of wind would move a stalk and the monster on the screen seemed to be coming right for you. I don’t know now what movies we watched that way, but I seem to recall that they were mostly monster movies. One wasn’t-it had a lot of dialog and not much action, and I remember we got bored and went inside and watched the Three Stooges instead. I can’t remember if they were just on tv or if we had them on tape…Beta..thank you very much! Still have the player and video camera for that.
I don’t recall ever actually going to the drive in to watch a movie. I am sure we did at least once, but all I remember is the late nights at the pond watching silent monster movies.

Posted By David Kalat : September 6, 2011 5:57 pm

Oh, Heidi, that is a fantastic anecdote! I am envious–and thanks so much for sharing it.

Posted By David Kalat : September 6, 2011 5:57 pm

Oh, Heidi, that is a fantastic anecdote! I am envious–and thanks so much for sharing it.

Posted By Doug : September 6, 2011 7:14 pm

David, a fine post-born a movie fan. You were raised right.
I can remember being allowed to watch “Creature Features” on New Years Eve-allowed, but unable to stay up that long the first few years, but by age 8 or so I saw the scary movies and was thrilled.

Posted By Doug : September 6, 2011 7:14 pm

David, a fine post-born a movie fan. You were raised right.
I can remember being allowed to watch “Creature Features” on New Years Eve-allowed, but unable to stay up that long the first few years, but by age 8 or so I saw the scary movies and was thrilled.

Posted By muriel schwenck : September 7, 2011 11:09 pm

We rarely went to movie theaters when I was a kid. One memorable event when I was 9 years old was a double bill of Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur. Until then I’d rarely seen a color movie, so that was quite an introduction to technicolor. We didn’t get home until 1:30AM. I was riveted the whole time. The other banner event was watching National Velvet 3 times in a row one Saturday Matinee. This was all around 1970.
When Star Wars came out, my father and I went to a drive-in to see it. We loved the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. We hated Star Wars. And “The Holy Grail” was playing on the next screen! I wanted to go watch that instead, but my father didn’t like Monty Python.
HEIDI – I love that anecdote about the rustling corn. Someone gave me a VHS of “Blair Witch Project”. I watched it one cold & windy night in my old farm house. There were a few cypress trees next to the house which *groaned* in the wind. I’d forgotten about a bag of trash I left on the porch and some raccoons had a pitched battle over the treasures. Blair Witch Project is awful, but the additional sound track was a great addition.

Posted By muriel schwenck : September 7, 2011 11:09 pm

We rarely went to movie theaters when I was a kid. One memorable event when I was 9 years old was a double bill of Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur. Until then I’d rarely seen a color movie, so that was quite an introduction to technicolor. We didn’t get home until 1:30AM. I was riveted the whole time. The other banner event was watching National Velvet 3 times in a row one Saturday Matinee. This was all around 1970.
When Star Wars came out, my father and I went to a drive-in to see it. We loved the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. We hated Star Wars. And “The Holy Grail” was playing on the next screen! I wanted to go watch that instead, but my father didn’t like Monty Python.
HEIDI – I love that anecdote about the rustling corn. Someone gave me a VHS of “Blair Witch Project”. I watched it one cold & windy night in my old farm house. There were a few cypress trees next to the house which *groaned* in the wind. I’d forgotten about a bag of trash I left on the porch and some raccoons had a pitched battle over the treasures. Blair Witch Project is awful, but the additional sound track was a great addition.

Posted By Tom S : September 7, 2011 11:38 pm

I once watched The Silence of the Lambs while waiting for a phone call from my landlord that would tell me whether or not I was being kicked out my my apartment. I swear to God, I have never seen a more frightening movie in my life.

Posted By Tom S : September 7, 2011 11:38 pm

I once watched The Silence of the Lambs while waiting for a phone call from my landlord that would tell me whether or not I was being kicked out my my apartment. I swear to God, I have never seen a more frightening movie in my life.

Posted By JeffH : September 8, 2011 1:49 am

GONE WITH THE WIND and BEN-HUR double feature? Talk about intestinal fortitude! I thought the New Beverly in West Hollywood showing the first two GODFATHER films as a double bill was a sit, but wow!

Posted By JeffH : September 8, 2011 1:49 am

GONE WITH THE WIND and BEN-HUR double feature? Talk about intestinal fortitude! I thought the New Beverly in West Hollywood showing the first two GODFATHER films as a double bill was a sit, but wow!

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