Reel Life

What a life spent in the dark can teach you

I see a lot of movies. This year’s checklist includes Gran Torino, Anatomy of a Murder, Coraline, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, Rashomon, Ghost Town, Shaft, JCVD, The Sweet Smell of Success, Zombie Diaries, Metropolis, Frozen River, Young At Heart, and Horse Feathers (yet again). I recently added From Hell It Came to the list, and I have to say, as far as movie-making goes, it was certainly true to its title.

My love of movies originated with The Sound of Music. As a chubby Catholic kindergartner seeing her first movie in a theater, I was delighted to discover that you could be a nun and marry a foxy, rich, decorated captain in the Austrian Navy—and get an instant family without having to suffer the indignity of touching a boy. A woman could have it all!

I have probably seen The Sound of Music at least 30 times, what with owning the collector’s edition DVD, attending sing-alongs at the Uptown Theatre, and sitting through numerous TV broadcasts (the film’s running time, with commercials added in, seems almost as long as the Third Reich itself). Yet only lately has it occurred to me that Austria is a landlocked country, which begs the question of why it even had a Navy….

I also watched a lot of movies while babysitting. As a teenager, I was very much in demand as a babysitter in my neighborhood. Hardly a Saturday night went by that I wasn’t being paid 50 cents an hour to ignore the children and eat potato chips and ice cream while watching old movies on network TV into the wee hours.

After the kids were in bed (usually no more than 10 minutes after their parents’ departure—I was strict about that!), I was often unnerved by the silence, however. I had seen When A Stranger Calls, and the unsettling notion that the calls were coming from inside the house had seeded itself in my tiny teen brain. Oddly, movies like The Creature of the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man kept the unease at bay. Oh, sure, they were intended as scary movies, but I was fairly confident that an anthropomorphic amphibious creature wouldn’t break into the house. Please, there were no lakes for miles around.

During my twenties, I took to seeing bargain matinees. I was new to adulthood and the big city, and I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life. How heartening it was that E.T., the kids in St. Elmo’s Fire, and Gandhi had problems too! Their struggles may not have exactly mirrored my own, but I found solace in the fact that, even in the worst of times, they always got good lines and good lighting. For a few hours every week, as the shaft of light played across the screen like a tractor beam tracing the surface of the moon, I was able to leave my own planet for a brief while.

Many years ago, my mother invited me to a showing of Gone with the Wind when it was in one of its occasional theatrical re-releases. I was somewhere in my thirties and we weren’t getting along very well, though I’m hard-pressed to recollect why exactly. She’d probably done nothing but be too square for her trying-hard-not-to-be-square daughter. But who was I to pass up a movie? We met at the theater and, amid stilted conversation, got our popcorn and took our seats. The lights went down, the overture began, and I was enraptured. At one point, I turned to my mother and whispered, no doubt with some hostility, “How come you never told me about Clark Gable?”

The Civil War flew by in those four hours, and somewhere in that span the conflict that existed between Mom and I ceased as well. She’d turned me on to a piece of film history. Afterward, she told me about seeing the movie with her older sister when they were girls. As they walked home after the show, my worldly 9-year-old aunt urged my mother to not breathe a word to their parents about how dirty the movie was. My mother had no idea what she was talking about. My aunt said in a hush, as my mother acted it out, “They said the word damn!”

That afternoon with my mother was one of the loveliest of my life.