Thursday, March 30, 2017

MAKING A MEMORY: CINEMA & THE CULT OF LONGING

In this photo by Pulitzer Prize-winning San Francisco Chronicle photographer Joe Rosenthal (of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima fame), the marquee for The Castro Theater advertises the double-feature It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Far From The Madding Crowd. I saw this very double feature at the Castro, sitting through both films twice (a real butt-buster if ever there was one) so I'm placing this photo around 1970/1971

In Walt Disney’s The Parent Trap (the good one with Hayley Mills) there’s a scene where the twin raised in California greets her Boston grandfather (Charles Ruggles) for the first time, and as they embrace, Susan (Mills), prolonging the hug, buries her face in the lapels of the old man's jacket.

Grandfather: “What are you doing?”
Susan: “Making a memory.”
Grandfather: “Making a memory?”
Susan: “All my life...years from now when I’m quite grown up, I’ll remember my grandfather and how he always smelled of (sniffs his lapel again) tobacco and peppermint.”

Apart from always giving me a case of waterworks, that scene fairly sums up for me what moviegoing was like before the days of cable, satellite, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and online streaming. When there was no telling when you’d ever have an opportunity to see a favorite film again, a standard part of the moviegoing experience was learning how make a memory. Developing skills, rituals, and habits by which one could hold onto the memory of a movie for as long as possible.

For the devoted film fan it was practically a survival tactic. By the time I reached my teens it had become second nature for me to take detailed mental pictures; subconsciously log, file, and catalog significant sequences for later recollection rewind; and to keep seismic record of the goosebump moments of every movie I liked.  Even on those occasions when I’d I sit through a movie twice in one afternoon, the subconscious goal was always the same: to have the film make as indelible an impression as possible on my psyche so that thereafter, the film became “mine.”  A memory of an experience I could relive and draw upon at will; be it to inspire, lift my spirits, or see me through any number of then-earth-shattering adolescent crises.
I fell in love with movies in the late ‘60s, back when there were only three TV networks and movies could take as long as two years to reach the TV screen. Then, lacking the technology affording one the opportunity to watch and rewatch a beloved movie in the comfort of one’s home—ad nauseam, ad infinitum, to the point of torpor—one had to rely on extended memory. Deprived of having the easily-referenced details of a film at our fingertips (not to mention the demythologizing, demystifying, explain-every-subtlety-and-detail contribution of DVD commentary tracks), the memory of movies were all you had. And even then often only in the form of fractured recall, subjective reminiscence, and hazy, emotion-diffused impressions of the sort that made it easy to misquote and misremember entire scenes.
But in the end, all of this goes to explain the origins of my subjective/emotional philosophy of cinema: In lieu of being able to possess a film in actual fact, I came to base my love of movies on how they made me feel.
The most coveted (by me) part of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle was the entertainment "Date Book" section, known to locals as "the "pink pages." Here would be found all the info on the upcoming week of releases. The movies advertised for Wednesday or Friday release I wouldn't get to see until Saturday or Sunday, affording me a full five or 6 days to get all worked up over a particular film.  This issue is dated June 16, 1968, a week after Rosemary's Baby ( my #1 favorite film of all time) opened on Wednesday, June 12th.

But even fond memories require the occasional bowl-stirring, so a big part of film fandom for me as a youth involved finding new ways to prolong the moviegoing experience.

For example, my predilection for watching the same movie repeatedly is rooted specifically in the fact that when I was growing up, once a movie finished its original run at the local theater; there was no telling when it would appear again. Back then revival theaters (those that didn't specialize in underground, foreign, and art films) served the same purpose then as TCM does now; providing access to uncut classic films like Dinner at Eight & My Little Chickadee from Hollywood's Golden Age. When it came to mainstream releases like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Up The Down Staircase, after their initial release (which was longer then and not so saturated) you had to scan the newspaper movie section waiting for them to reappear on the bottom half of  a double or triple bill at some 2nd or 3rd-run neighborhood movie house. Short of that, there was waiting for them to appear—butchered, censored, and commercial interrupted—on network TV.
The Stepford Wives is one of my best-loved films. While I don't recall the year this 1975 film made its network television premiere, I do remember being disappointed (but not altogether surprised) that the ending had to be trimmed, muting its overall impact. Having to endure the subtle censorship or total excision of favorite moments in beloved films was a common part of the old-school "luxury" of having feature films broadcast into your living room.                                                           Image: coolasscinema.com

Since I liked to read, there was always the option of going to the local library and checking out the novels from which some of my favorite films were adapted (I especially liked the movie tie-in paperbacks which always included loads of stills). A rare and mostly last-ditch effort on my part to keep a movie memory alive was the paperback “novelization”—a marketing device reserved for films adapted from original screenplays. I recall my experience reading the novelization of Thoroughly Modern Millie mostly in terms of the great pains I took not to let the boys at school see what I was reading. The paperback’s gay-as-a-goose cover art was bad enough, but the exclamation! packed! purple prose! on the back made it clear women and teenage girls were its targeted readership.
Fake novel / Real Novel
Because I was shy, I always had my nose buried in a book at school. When reading Millie, I dreaded the day (which, mercifully, never came) when one of my classmates would ask me what I was reading and I'd be forced to witness the color drain from their face as I summarized its cotton-candy plot. On the other hand, Cuckoo got me some unearned points from my English teacher who, upon seeing it on my desk, misread it as One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and thereafter never missed an opportunity to commend me on selecting Ken Kesey for recreational reading "At a high-school level!" (I was eleven)

One of the more accessible in-home ways to sustain the excitement of movies (thanks to an older sister who spent substantial hunks of her weekly allowance on issues of Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, Movie Mirror, Photoplay, and Silver Screen) was the movie fan magazine. While other kids my age were reading Batman comic books, I was reading about why Liz was too sick to satisfy her man, and what new heartbreak The Lennon Sisters were having to endure. Before People magazine and ‘round the clock “entertainment news” channels convinced folks that non-stop celebrity gossip was actually real news, these mags served their fandom purpose by keeping pop-cultural ephemera where it belonged: on the sidelines amongst the scandal sheets and teen-celebrity magazines.
Screen Stories was my favorite movie magazine because each issue contained
complete, spoiler-filled synopses of all the latest flicks. With pictures!

I eventually gave up raiding my sister’s stash of movie gossip rags once I discovered the “serious” movie periodicals section of the library. There, magazines with chi-chi names like Sight and Sound, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, and Films in Review not only fed my adolescent pretensions, but fostered my lifelong love of movie criticism and film analysis. Feeding my equally keen adolescent fondness for looking at pictures of naked men was British-based Films and Filming magazine, a self-billed “sensible magazine for serious film-goers” that was loaded with intelligent film reviews and could always be relied upon to feature the most salacious and homoerotic stills culled from even the most harmless movies.
When it came to helping me convince my parents that all the nudity in those age-inappropriate movies I so wanted to see was actually "artistic" and "significant to the plot," serious film periodicals (doesn't that sound better than movie magazines?) like Films and Filming proved invaluable.

Reading about movies or rewatching them to the point of memorization is all well and good, but those are but mementos of the mind. I don't know of a movie fan worthy of the name who at some time or another hasn't longed for some sort of concrete, tangible, take-home token of a film. 
For me it was through the collecting of movie-themed souvenirs. Not so much when I was very young (because I had to wait for movies to come to the neighborhood theater) but in my teens through to early adulthood I loved it when first-run movies would offer some kind of chintzy promotional giveaway to the first 50 to 100 patrons at selected screenings. The thrill of being one of the few to take home a small memento of a movie (not to mention the silent, mean-spirited joy to be had in gloating over empty-handed patrons 101-plus) is what prompted my then-annoying penchant for dragging my friends to theaters way too early, making them stand in long lines (something which I quite enjoyed).

Over the years I’ve sold or donated the bulk of my movie souvenir collection of buttons, T-shirts, banners and posters, but stashed away somewhere in my apartment I still have a few items of interest to nobody but me: the pinback button from the opening day of Alien (sounds good, but it's a dull graphic that merely has the words "You Are My Lucky Star" [the song Ripley sings to herself moments before the final attack] printed over a starry background); the sample soundtrack LP handed out at the premiere (and Joan Tewkesbury autograph signing) of the forgotten 1979 Talia Shire film Old Boyfriends; and a poster given out at an early screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon.
Although my original "Pray for Rosemary's Baby" button is the pride of my collection,
I still possess quite a few promotional pinback giveaways 

Another favorite of mine was the souvenir program. Big-budget movies and roadshow attractions traditionally sold “official” souvenir programs at the theater lobby concession stands right next to the Jujubes and Milk Duds. Crammed with photos and PR puffery, these glossy brochures were little more than glorified pressbooks. But there was no better feeling than coming home from a movie, excited and tired but not wanting the evening to end, settling into bed and reading yourself to sleep while poring over all that prepackaged publicity material, the film replaying on a loop in your head.
Of the many souvenir programs I purchased when these films opened in
 San Francisco in the '70s, these three were my favorites

Pop-art pinup posters were all the rage during the late ‘60’s & ‘70s, and while I loved having blow-up posters of old-Hollywood movie stars like W.C. Fields, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable on the walls of my bedroom (ironic nostalgia was in), I really wanted contemporary stars. My sole concessions to modern times were my posters of Peter Fonda on his Easy Rider bike, and a twin set of Liz Taylor and Richard in their The Taming of the Shrew costumes.
Liz  & Dick: The "It" couple of my youth graced these individual 
posters it felt a crime not to buy as a pair

But shyness, concern that my sisters would tease me (and the ultimate fear that my mom wouldn’t let me keep them anyway) prevented me from owning the two pinup posters I most wanted and which always caught my eye when I'd walk past the head shops and record stores on San Francisco's Haight Street: Jane Fonda in full Barbarella gear, and one-flop-wonder Ewa Aulin posed provocatively in an airplane cockpit as Candy
Tame by today's standards, these were popular and racy posters in 1968. And only being 10 or 11 at the time, I was certain I had no chance of owning them. It then never occurred to me that my father might have been encouraged as hell to have his quiet, non-athletic, bookworm son ask to post a little female T & A on his bedroom wall.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I learned civilians could actually purchase the posters, stills, and lobby cards displayed at movie theaters (detailed in my essay The Show Began on the Sidewalk). Thereafter, for several decades, movie posters remained my preferred, all-time favorite motion picture collectible.

But so far, all the modes of movie memory-making I’ve covered have been of the visual-aids variety: items that work like sentimental signposts designed to jog my memory along a recollection map whose coordinates and points of reference it remained largely up to me to determine (i.e., they could only trigger memories I’d already backlogged).

Movie soundtrack albums were another thing entirely. I speak not of the soundtrack albums for movie musicals, which are both culturally accessible (the source of many top 40 hits) and require no real affinity for the film itself (e.g., the double platinum LP success of the otherwise flop musical Xanadu). No, I speak of the limited, almost cult-like appeal of the original soundtrack album devoted to the instrumental, chiefly orchestral, musical score composed for a dramatic or comedic film. Not everybody has the stomach for long play records devoted to the non-diegetic (outside-of-story) thrills of background themes, melodic excerpts, and music categorized as incidental or transitional.

Listening to music composed for the express purpose of (imperceptibly) enhancing a film's mood and influencing the viewer's emotional response to images on a screen may not be everyone’s taste, but whether it was music for a chase scene, bar fight, suspenseful moment, or comic interlude; for the longest time motion picture soundtrack albums were the only way to really take a movie home with you.

Some of my happiest memories are of lying on the living room (shag) carpet in front of our wood-paneled TV/Radio/Hi-Fi record player console behemoth (with space for album storage!) listening to soundtrack albums I rented from the public library. Remembering a film is nice—and that’s where memorabilia and souvenirs come in—but listening to a movie’s soundtrack LP, with eyes closed and headphones on, is more than recollection; it’s rediscovery.
By listening to music you most likely felt but never really heard (if the movie did its job of keeping you engrossed), you got to replay and relive a cinema experience in your mind There’s a definite geek element to this method of making a movie memory (the scores to a great many ‘60s comedies sound like music for a cartoon or bad TV sitcom), but nothing compared to soundtrack albums for their ability to inspire new dreams while revisiting the old.
I don’t know if it’s a music industry fact, but it always felt as though I grew up during the golden age of movie music. Themes songs from motion pictures were all over the radio and TV variety programs. My earliest memories of the kind of movie music played around my house are not of movie soundtrack albums, but albums devoted to cover versions of popular songs from movies. My mom had a crush on Tom Jones, and though she played his What's New, Pussycat? album to death, I don't remember a single other song on it.

My dad's crush was on Nancy Wilson, so I heard this album quite a lot. It included the songs EVERY popular singer of the time recorded—Moon River, The Days of Wine & Roses, and Alfie—plus the ubiquitous More (theme from Mondo Cane), which to this very day always makes me think of the 1963 film Toys in the Attic. You see, my folks took us with them to a Drive-In movie to see the Dean Martin starrer Toys in the Attic (Dino was another of my mom's crushes...she really had a "type" didn't she?), and it was there that I was traumatized by the trailer for the gross-out shock documentary Mondo Cane.

As much as I loved movies, when I was young, thanks to the proliferation of light classical and easy listening LPs like these, movie music carried the stigma of being Muzak and "elevator music." You really couldn't go anywhere without hearing Lara's Theme from Doctor Zhivago (Somewhere My Love), or the Theme from Moulin Rouge (Where Is your Heart?), and torture around our house was any time my parents popped on one of the above interchangeably bland recording artists who majored in sound-alike covers of popular tunes.
I now have all of these on my iPod, the only album unable to withstand the test of time being Barefoot in the Park. Nothing evokes 1969 San Francisco for me like The Magic Christian soundtrack. Midnight Cowboy is perhaps the best score of the four. To this date I've never seen The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, but when I was 10, I was a fan of The New Vaudeville Band (Winchester Cathedral) so their presence on this LP was enough to make the gamble worthwhile

TOP 20 Motion Picture Soundtrack Albums
(not a list of the "best" albums - a list of albums that made me happy)


I simply marvel at all that technology has made available to the modern film buff. Movies can be viewed in laser-sharp Blu-ray within months of their theatrical releases, complete with deleted scenes, alternate endings, informative commentary tracks, and director’s cuts. There’s untold online access to stills, posters, storyboards, soundtrack cuts (no need to listen to the entire album!) early script drafts, interviews, poster galleries, and all manner of behind-the-scenes trivia and factoids. I could never have imagined even a fraction of all this growing up.
And while I’m sure my 12-year-old self would have been over-the-moon enraptured had any of this been available to me during my formative film fan years; my older and wiser present-self knows better.

I know that my lifetime love affair with movies has always been nurtured by the courtship phase: the anticipation, the counting-the-days-until-release excitement...followed up by the exquisite agony of wondering when you'll get to see the movie again and how you could sustain your memories of it until then.
The elemental unavailability of movies (no attendance allowed on school nights, had to take a bus to get to them, seen only in cavernous movie palaces resembling churches) is what gave them their mystique and made them special. All giving way to what I call the cult of longing—those myriad rituals I engaged in (posters souvenirs, memorabilia, records, etc.) to best make a lasting memory of a favorite film. 
Over the years I've found that what this method lacks in instant gratification has been more than made up for in its ability to create a bridge linking the magic of cinema to the durability of dreams.
The Alhambra Theater on Polk Street in San Francisco - Site of my first job
I moved to LA in 1978, but took this photo in 1981 during a visit

BONUS MATERIAL
Excellent companion-piece article by Joe Meyers at Joe's View:  When Movies Were Big


Copyright © Ken Anderson