Sunday, December 27, 2009


When I was a little boy, my father would take me to the movies once in a while. He seemed a comic man to many -- full of wit and good humor. He had a serious sort of mind, too. To talk a lot and say nothing without being a bore is daunting. It's a conversation wire strung between two spires. The crowd never joins you on the wire. If you fall, you have to listen. You are no longer in charge.

When I was a performer, we often let members of the audience, especially pretty girls, but not always, get up and do some little bit of an act with us. Some had to be coaxed, but many pushed right on in. They were dangerous, the pushers. Someone that desperately wants to be on stage but has no business being there is a terrible thing. Picture your bosses' speech at the Christmas party writ large. As I said, we invited people up, and asked them questions, and let them sing or dance or carry on, but there was only one, unspoken rule among the bandmembers. Never let anyone get the microphone away from you and hold it in their hand. It was much the same thing. A kind of control.

So the opposite of talking is waiting for most people. Talking all the time is a kind of self defense. I understand that now.

My father liked all sorts of movies. He laughed at Clousseau, he wasn't a bore. But he liked serious things to be put on the screen, mostly. He liked Patton and The Bridge on the River Kwai and things like that.

He took me in 1970 to the Cinema in the little town I grew up in. It was a wonder, that theater. Really big, with steeply raked seating and one, gigantic screen. Later on they cut it up into three little screens in three shabby little rooms and wrecked it. Demolished now. But way back then, it was the way to see a movie. When I moved to Los Angeles as a young man, I sat in all the big movie temples there to recreate the effect of that big flickering screen before the big velvet seats.

My father told me that Lawrence of Arabia was the greatest movie ever made, and because of the way that movies would be made in the future, it was probably the greatest movie that would ever be made. They had fixed up the print and re-released it. I wasn't even a teenager, but he took me. It made a lasting impression on me in all sorts of ways.

Pop would always jape at the television. He'd have a running commentary of the proceedings that was always more mordant and funny than anything presented as the entertainment. It was the old self-defense. When we went to the movies, and as the big room darkened and the wild orchestral opening music came up, Pop leaned over and told me I should be quiet now. It was superfluous, as I was riveted to the screen the whole time, which was a long time indeed. I realized a long time after that, that it was my father's way of surrendering his intellect to others. He gave it the respect it deserved in his mind.

It's an old habit now, and I can't shake it. I never go to the movie theater anymore, because no one ever shuts the hell up, and they're not wrong anyway; there's nothing on the screen that deserves the respect. We'll rent it and yell at the screen, and make our own fun in the Irish way.

Your father never leaves, I guess.


Casey Klahn said...

I had the same experiences of a grand theater in my small hometown. Except that mine is still there, by a miracle. I went to a rare showing there of Pyscho a couple of years ago.

There were the ornate sitting room, bathrooms, stairways - everything. The group who put on the movie event hosted a live scream contest on stage.

I'll be ordering that re-master on Netflix, next. Imagine an actor nowadays serious enough to act in LOA-I cannot imagine one.

Retriever said...

Loved the film "Lawrence of Arabia". Was in love from afar with Peter O'Toole (and lucky enough to see him live on stage in London as well). And it's so true about chopping up the big screens...I remember being jammed up in the front row with horses and soldiers charging at us on the huge screens and it was terrifying! TV very tame by comparison...

Johnny Glendale said...

Coincidentally, just watched LofA last week (the "Superbit" DVD) for the first time in years. Still amazing.

I'm usually more of "make me laugh and blow stuff up" movie consumer, but this is really what a movie should be.

And, actually, I did laugh and they did blow stuff up.

Anonymous said...

ed in texas

Perhaps the most telling statement I've got from my eldest son was, after he joined the army and went overseas, was "Dad, you know, other people don't mock the TV like we do."

Rob De Witt said...

Hell, we had big movie theaters with plush seats in the town I grew up in, which had a population of 75,000 if you included transients.

Sure, there were much better movies available in the '40s and '50s, but the almost-inconceivable-now part was that the audience went there to be entertained, not show everybody else what an incomparable wit they had.

Plus of course they might get their nose broken before the usher could rescue them.