Friday, May 06, 2011

MOTHERS & MOVIES: THREE SONS

"Mothers of America, let your kids go to the movies! ...It's true that fresh air is good for the body but what about the soul that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images?"Frank O'Hara, "Ave Maria" (from Lunch Poems, 1964)

During one of my conversations with film historian Matthew Kennedy, I realized that both of us had acquired our love for movies through our mothers, which led me to wonder how many other cinephiles—filmmakers and audience alike—have shared a similar experience? In the past year, I have asked several individuals: "Did your mother have any influence on your cinephilia? Did she influence the movies you watched or—in the case of filmmakers—the movies you've made?" Along with the generous anecdotes received from various Bay Area cinephiles (published at SF360), and the contributions from international cinephiles at MUBI, these three responses to my inquiry were particularly eloquent and I felt they grouped into a theme and warranted an entry of their own. To Jesse, Jonathan and Richard, I extend heartfelt thanks for being so open with theirs.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, Impresario / Educator

My Mother returned from an East Coast trip in the Summer of 1985 with a handful of recorded VHS tapes. I was nine years old. As we watched Wes Craven's A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), my life changed forever. My parents had already blown my tiny mind a few years prior when (at the age of five) they took me next door to watch Ridley Scott's Alien on the neighbor's HBO cable TV setup. But this very particular concept: watching a VHS tape on Fridays, after school, with my Mother, became a weekly After School special.

She would pick me up in the back of Nibley Park Elementary School in Salt Lake CIty, Utah. We would speed up Foothill Drive, order some gourmet nachos at a nearby restaurant (The Mushroom Company) and make a mad dash into our favorite rental store (Neighborhood Video). You see, my Father was a DJ at the community radio station on Friday's "Drivetime", so if we could load up and be back home by 3:00PM, we might be able to pack in three films before he arrived home at 6:45PM (7:00PM if traffic was slow). So running around the jam packed video store, I scanned the wire racks, grabbing every horror film that my subscription to
Fangoria had ever mentioned. Then, as I wove my way over to my Mother in the comedy section, I lingered at the New Release wall, eavesdropping on the older staff's "new favorites". I wanted to work there! I wanted to know which films had just come out! I wanted first dibs on all those movie posters hanging on the walls! Uh oh ... I could see Mom walking over to me! "The nachos are probably getting cold. Are you all ready? Did you pick one out yet?!" I sheepishly would raise up my pick: Return to Oz, Stand By Me and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (again). She had two picks herself: Real Genius and St. Elmo's Fire. (She had such a crush on Val Kilmer and Andrew McCarthy!) What to do? It was pushing 3:15PM already! So my Mother would do what any Mother should do ... Rent All Five!

Every Friday, from the age of nine to fourteen, we would arrive home, heat up the nachos, cook up some extra cheese and set up our living room plates. But wait ... had I remembered to turn on the radio to record Dad's radio show?! "Come on Mom, it's
on!" Mom would come running in with her newly filled tupperware of dried papaya, unsweetened carob chips and sunflower seeds. "It's Friday 'Drivetime' and this is Professor R&B. You are listening to KRCL, 91FM. We're gonna start things off with a little Booker T. and the MG's." As soon as the first song came on, we were good to go! The cassette button ON, down went the sound and the movie extravaganza could begin! It was 3:30PM and we were gonna somehow watch all five films in three hours. Of course we would normally only get through two and a half. And when our DJ would come home, we would rave about how Booker T actually sounded so much better than the previous time we had heard him and then give each other a secret, subtle smile.

But when this little boy started High School, all of this ended. He was 15 and he didn't want to come home on Fridays and hang out with his Mom anymore! In fact he didn't even want to live at home anymore! He acquired a job at a movie theatre. He started plotting ways to run away. In fact, he pretty much did everything
not to be with his Mom and Dad. Sometimes he was even in the house on some of those teenage Fridays, locked away downstairs in his room. What was his Mom suddenly doing with her Friday afternoons? Was she silently upstairs hoping for her son to magically get over his adolescence so she could have her movie companion back? Was she cooking nachos all by herself, predicting that he was going to move away from her for the rest of their lives? Was she going to know that these magical times were going to be something that neither of them would ever forget for the rest of their lives?

As MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS reaches its 10th Anniversary this year, this Mother needs to know that the monthly triple bill (which sometimes stretches into that hypothetical quintuple feature) screens at the greatest Silent-era movie palace in the USA, The Castro Theatre, and screens on those same Friday and Saturday nights and that it's all because of her. Not only have most of these past decades events been created from the exact movies they watched together, but as the film series continues to surprisingly grow, every and all of the future extravaganzas are a sincere tribute to her unconditional love. I love you Momma.

Jonathan Marlow, Executive Director SF Cinematheque

When I was a child, it was essentially just me, my 11-month-younger brother and my mother. Our father disappeared when I was not quite two years old and my mother remarried my (largely absentee) step-father a few years later. Whether that meant there was stronger-than-usual connection between me and my mother (and me and my brother) is difficult to say. The connection was strong and the "father figure" didn't play much of a role at all. At any rate, I largely spent much of my childhood time alone. I was a "reader" and tended to tear through any book that I could get my hands on (a fairly solitary behavior, of course). I could talk (complete sentences at six months) and read (phonetically at about ten months) before I could walk.

One of my earliest memories was watching television with my mother. We lived in the middle-of-nowhere and there weren't many viewing options. I don't suppose this will make sense to children today but there were only a handful of channels at the time. My mother was quite fond of watching programming in syndication and we regularly watched
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I wager I was more fond of these latter two programs at the time (since their fantastic premises appealed to me) but it was the former show that really had an impact. It was the first time that I really started to understand the role of the "director" in a film. This rotund fellow—the host of the show (with his name in the title, no less)—also made films.

Occasionally, his films would air on television and we would watch these together. I remember three in particular. The first (I believe) was
Rear Window. There was something about watching the film on television which, by extension, was watching Jimmy Stewart looking out a window (the same dimensions, relatively, as the television itself) and, by further extension, Stewart watching the activities in the courtyard of his apartment building. These layers of voyeurism were fascinating to me. Around this same time, we watched Vertigo and the whole use of a real city as a backdrop for the action was fascinating to me. A whole other disconnection was created during our lone family trip (when I was ten) to San Francisco. The images of the city were still lingering from the film and it was amazing to see a number of those same landmarks during the brief visit. I'm certain it played a part in my decision to move here. The third featured Jimmy Stewart, again, and it was (at the time) my absolute favorite. Whereas Rear Window used Stewart's limited mobility as a key plot point (since we never leave his room), this other film—Rope—used a single location and the illusion (which Hitchcock significantly breaks at two dramatic moments) of a single take.

I've watched this film many, many times. Most folks consider it to be a grand experiment but a failure nonetheless. I think it is absolutely brilliant in nearly every respect. I should admit that I was a fairly naive kid. I watched
Lolita in my pre-teen years and thought it was merely about a fellow with an unhealthy obsession. When someone told me (as a teenager) that the subtext was that James Mason and Sue Lyon had a sexual relationship, I thought the idea was absurd. Of course that didn't happen! As you can guess, I entirely missed the point of Farley Granger and John Dall's relationship in Rope. Perhaps it just wasn't something that I was even prepared to understand. I knew the story was based on a true story but I never bothered to investigate the details. That would've been a clue. I also have to presume that Hitchcock was having a bit of fun with his audience. Of course, at the time, he couldn't really address the sexual preference of the lead characters. But casting two gay actors to play these roles ... certainly not a coincidence. The screenwriter? Arthur Laurents (who was in a relationship with Granger at the time the film was made). Even the choice of Francis Poulenc as the composer of the piece that Granger keeps practicing doesn't strike me as accidental in the slightest. The whole thing is particularly subversive. What keeps me coming back to this film is that fact that Hitchcock does something that is quite unbelievably difficult. He takes this despicable and sadistic act with no prior explanation and then finds a way to make these characters human. You never want them to get away with it but you definitely want to hear them out. You want to understand why they did what they did. In particular, it is interesting that the murder itself is not enough. The thrill is in putting themselves in a position where they can get caught. "Did you think you were God, Brandon? Did you think you were God when you served food from his grave?" Murder? Well, that can happen. A dinner party after a murder? Clearly, there are limits!

My mother never commented on the storyline (or the moral ambiguities) of any of the films that we watched together. Most helpfully, she always emphasized that it was "only a movie." Unlike other children, I presume, nothing in a film ever really scared me. I understood that what I was seeing was fiction* (and, even in documentaries, what we were being presented wasn't all that far removed from fiction as well). No matter whatever I saw, it had little evident effect. There are two exceptions. I remember staying up late one night to watch Brian De Palma's
The Fury, a horrible piece of dreck that I evidently watched when I was eight (based on the year of release). Probably the first time I saw John Cassavetes in a film! There is a sequence toward the end of the film where one of the characters (Cassavetes, perhaps; I've never watched it again) is hovering in the corner of a room. It was probably 1:00AM when the film ended and it was a long walk down the hall from the living room to my bedroom. It was only disturbing because it was particularly unexpected. The only other instance of freak-out was the plot of The Other. I was probably six or seven when I saw it. The whole notion of these two boys really resonated with me since it was reminiscent (unsurprisingly) of me and my brother. I don't know if you've seen it and, if not, I don't want to ruin it for you. If you're familiar with the plot, you'll understand why the "reveal" really messed with me. Not appropriate for a six year old!

*[Unfortunately, due to the limited channel selection at the time and the rapid expansion of home video at the time, we rented plenty of films in my youth. Plenty of horror films, actually. The whole "it's all fiction" thing allowed me to tolerate a considerable amount of nonsense that, these days, I don't have the patience to sit through.]

Richard Von Busack, Film Critic

My mother was a very left wing, very earthy woman (having five kids will do that) and we were both the big cinema fans in the family. She was terrific about driving me to movies I wanted to see. One of the greatest acts of kindness she did for me was driving me 25 miles to see Dr. No and From Russia With Love when it was in re-release, on a last night in a theater in a far away suburb called Monrovia; I'd been spending the summer with my grandparents in Oklahoma and I couldn't convince them to take me. (An excruciating childhood moment: seeing the theater marquee across the highway near Tinker Air Force base, and not being allowed to go. I was a slave to those 007 movies.)

If I was home sick from school with asthma, she'd take me to a bargain matinee, sometimes on Hollywood Boulevard to the cavernous, unplexed palaces that the audiences had deserted in the early 1970s; we saw
The Great White Hope at the Chinese Theater at the first show on opening day. One thing about the 1970s: the word "inappropriate" was never used. I'll never be shocked again, after seeing the kind of movies I saw then (Von Trier tries). No matter what age you were, if you turned up at the theater they were ready for you! I can remember my mom's big rough hand covering my eyes during the money scene in Catch 22 ... and there were other bloodbath scenes in M*A*S*H that were slightly tough for a 12-year-old. And I'll never forget the time we saw Otto Preminger's The Cardinal on the late show: that's the day I learned about abortion, rape and the Ku Klux Klan!

I'd become a film critic—
i.e., a pain in the ass—toward the end of her life. So we didn't always agree on what was good anymore. I loved John Huston's The Dead, and had to basically be lead out in tears; the ending of the story, with the snow on the graves, reminded me that my mother would be gone someday. She didn't understand why I was so stricken. And when we left Breakfast Club, and I was so furious at that Reagan era conformist ending, she didn't understand that, either.

She died very early, at age 49, and she went just as a director was rising up who I know she would have loved: Tim Burton. We were about a half an hour from seeing
Batman, and she had a flare up of pain and couldn't go to the movies with me and my brothers. Don't know how many times I've since seen it—probably 6 or 7 times—and the scene of Michael Keaton leaving roses on the sidewalk was something I mentally dedicated to her.

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