Posted by David Kalat on September 3, 2011
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:
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–
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.
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 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.
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.
(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–
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.
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.
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.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies mystery Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns