Sunday, June 27, 2021

On movies and family

"How did you get over it?"

"I watched Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause, and I thought, 'I can't be the only person who has these feelings.'"

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore (1996)


My parents got a VCR in 1982, more or less the minute they were available at a reasonable price. The passage of time helps me see how unusual that was. We were comfortably middle class, but we didn't watch much TV. We didn't have cable. We certainly didn't have the giant, space station–style satellite dishes that some neighbors had.

But this wasn't TV. It was movies. My parents loved movies, and where we lived, out in the country, they were hard to come by. We got about five TV channels. The single-screen theater in our small town went in and out of business over the years like a firefly blinking on and off. Once it opened for a few winter months but had no heat. Another time it opened but was so forlorn that the operator answered a phone call from my dad asking when showtime was with, "When can you get here?" Any time it was shuttered, the nearest movies were an hour's drive away.

So when my parents got the chance to bring movies into their home, they jumped at it. If seeing Star Wars in the theater at three years old was the beginning of my love of movies, our VCR was the beginning of my education in their history and breadth. My parents are not scholars, of movies or anything else, and our family viewing was that of enthusiasts. We saw a lot of recent films—if Siskel and Ebert gave it their thumbs up, we would rent it. When Hitchcock's color works were restored and released on video, we watched them all over the course of a year or so. We saw the movies my parents remembered from childhood and youth; my brother and I have seen Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956) more times than any Gen Xer should have.

What a lifeline it must have been for my parents.


Film curator and critic Michael Koresky published a book last month, Films of Endearment, in which he details a year of watching movies with his mom.

It was explicitly a project, with structure. The idea—disrupted slightly by the pandemic—was to watch one movie a month, progressing through the 1980s via a film from each year of the decade that the two of them had seen together when Michael was younger. And the films chosen all had women at their center.

Our parents' tastes tend to be the first we know, and the work of trying to understand them (then, for many of us, eventually rebel against them) occupies a lot of time in childhood and youth. Watching how our parents react to culture is one of the first ways that we attempt to grasp what it is, means, and can be in our lives, how it reflects and refracts and influences them. This new movie-watching project gave Michael a chance to revisit his early encounters with those tastes, to see them with the full experience of forty years of life and discuss them with his mother in the more open, knowing environment of a parent-child relationship in adulthood.

As Michael and his mother together watch 9 to 5 (1980), Terms of Endearment (1983), Aliens (1986), and many more, he draws a picture of a relationship, to each other and to culture, that is familiar, comforting, and sweet. Encountering these films again, he's reminded, and thus reminds us, how much of our early selfhood is built with the pieces of life, the alternatives and approaches, that we see played out on screen, and of how the work of culture is necessarily interactive—how we aren't always sure of our understanding of or reaction to art until we've had a chance to discuss it with someone we care about.

For the past few years, the water table of my emotions has been unusually high, so that even the most inadvertent or indifferent spadework will unexpectedly discover fresh springs. I don't think I'm alone in that. Michael's book, with its stories of family and movies and love and loss, kept bringing my heart right up into my throat.


In mid-March 2020, when so many of us went home from the office and battened down, I started using what had been my commuting time to watch movies. I've watched a movie nearly every day since. There were a few gaps here and there caused by travel or other interference; you shouldn't deform your life for a stunt unless you've at least got a book deal in hand. But I've seen about five hundred movies in the past fifteen months.

A run like this would have absolutely wiped out my childhood video store, a mom-and-pop operation out in the country that smelled like pipe smoke and shared space with the proprietor's homemade ceramics. (You could buy a mug shaped like a boob, if that was your thing.) Now, however, Criterion Channel alone would have been able to keep me going. As any serious film buff is quick to say, not everything is streaming. But, lord, it's a lot, and when I think of those early VCR days, and the dearth of options before that, I marvel.

When I was a teenager living in the country but pining for something more, I saw culture as a checklist. To quote Woolf, it was an "ingenious picture puzzle, to be fitted accurately together." You follow the lead of someone like Ebert, visit the monuments, and eventually you'll have seen and know it all. You'll then be complete, the sophisticated person you imagine you want yourself to be. Some people never grow out of that approach. But ideally you get knocked off your moorings pretty young and start to see that the world is bigger and more multifarious than your ability to organize or contain, and you learn to chart your path through it via some combination of inclination, enthusiasm, education, and experiment.

Watching five hundred movies in a year showed me that even if you've taken that approach to movies for decades, the breadth of film culture and history can still astonish you. Throughout the year, following the path of a star or genre opened onto rooms that turned out to be in mansions that were themselves in whole other countries. It was a delight every day to keep exploring, tracing threads—a week of Technicolor Westerns, a month of Joan Crawford, half a dozen Wong Kar Wai films—and making discoveries.

It was also a lifeline. I had a much easier year amid COVID than most people did, but I still needed distraction and comfort, and movies—many of them made by people born long enough ago that they lived through our last pandemic—helped provide it. I'll never not be grateful that movies, and the technology to deliver them to my basement or backyard, were there for me.


My paternal grandfather, Harold Stahl, died on May 31. He was ninety-five and had stayed in pretty good health up until very near the end. As passings go, it was about as peaceful and welcome as anyone could ask for.

Grandpa was born in 1925 in rural southern Illinois, one of six children in a farm family. In 1943 he was drafted; he had to wait until the war was over to finish high school. After the war, he returned to his small town and married his high school sweetheart. The marriage stayed strong until his death. Together, they set to farming. He would do that until retirement, raising two kids along the way, one of whom, my father, was his partner in farming for almost twenty years. It was a happy, successful life.

I sometimes imagine other paths for him. He worked as part of a team of medics during the war, and he was always interested in medicine. It's easy to imagine him having become a doctor. But neither he nor my mother's father took advantage of the GI Bill. I never thought to ask them why, but I suspect it had to do with a sense of urgency, of time rapidly being lost.They wanted to get their lives underway.


My dad's parents were never into movies. Their relationship to culture overall was always limited. They read the newspaper, and Grandma read some fiction. (Like every house in 1982, they had a paperback of John Jakes's The Bastard on the shelf.) They listened to country music, but casually, satisfied with whatever the radio offered up. They followed baseball, but other than that and the news, didn't watch a lot of TV. They got a VCR in about 1986, and they used it to watch a single movie, once: The Long Riders, a Western about the James-Younger gang that I remember seeing at our small-town theater in 1980. I was six, but I nonetheless recall enough of what I now recognize as post-Peckinpah blood to make me confident they disliked it.

That indifference to culture has always been hard for me to understand. I suppose you could see something admirable about it: Their attention, essentially, stayed local, on their own lives and the community around them. What they had sufficed; they didn't need other people's stories and dreams to fill their days. Wendell Berry's more grounded characters might understand.

What is it like to not have that part of the mind engaged? To not live with a constant background buzz of thoughts about narrative and Jimmy Stewart and genre and landscape and and and? What is it like to not engage with these other lives on the screen, to not have them as models and influences and springboards for thinking about how one might choose to live?

That lack always left a gap in our interactions. Scrape culture completely off the palette, and the conversational colors you have to work with start to show their limits. My maternal grandmother was a counter-example, engaged with culture until her death at age ninety-six. She loved going to movies, even as her sight deteriorated. One of my favorite moviegoing memories is of me and my dad taking her to see Star Wars on its re-release in 1997. Her husband, my maternal grandfather, had just gone through bypass surgery and was recovering, and we were with her in Oklahoma City to help out. That day, the way we could help was by joining her in distraction, and Star Wars was what she wanted to see.

That interest in culture meant that we always had something to talk about. We'd discuss family, talk news, but we also would chat about books and long-gone stars. We shared a richer world than what I shared with my dad's parents.

"It has always annoyed me when someone tells me I talk about movies too much," Michael Koresky writes in Films of Endearment. "My response is that talking about movies is talking about life."


Over the past year, I've watched dozens of postwar crime films, a genre that it's all but impossible to understand without taking into account the fact that nearly all the male characters had just come back from war. They had used weapons. Many of them had killed, and seen friends killed. As James Jones put it in World War II, on the return to civilian life:
The first sign of change was the coming of the pain. As the old combat numbness disappeared, and the frozen feet of the soul began to thaw, the pain of the cure became evident. The sick-making thoughts of all the buddies who had died. The awful bad luck of the maimed. . . . About the last thing to go was the old sense of esprit. That was the hardest thing to let go of, because there was nothing in civilian life that could replace it. The love and understanding of men for men in dangerous times, places, and situations. Just as there was nothing in civilian life that could replace the heavy, turgid, day-to-day excitement of danger. Families and other civilian types would never understand that sense of esprit, any more than they would understand the excitement of the danger.
The veterans of World War II were expected to come home and pick up life where they had left it, not missing a step of the march. But you can see the unacknowledged trauma of their experience throughout the art of the period, and particularly in noir. As Marc Svetov put it in an issue of Noir City,
The portrayal of veterans in such films as Best Years of our Lives, The Men (1950), Pride of the Marines is optimistic—hope for reintegration into society is never really in doubt. In film noir, by contrast, the fate of veterans is unclear; it’s unknown whether social integration or a good life will come to any of the men in High Wall (1947), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Nobody Lives Forever(1946) and many other noirs. In the more mainstream films of the era, servicemen are depicted as solid, functioning Americans, ready to return to society, in some cases as heroes. Film noir took a different tack. It put a question mark to all of it.
Sometimes war damage is explicit, as with a case of shell-shock in The Blue Dahlia. Most of the time it's implicit. I keep finding my thoughts returning to Robert Ryan's dangerously restless character in Clash By Night (1952). Bored by civilian life, he brims with a violence that has no acceptable outlet. The world is settling down around him, and he doesn't fit.

Grandpa Harold was fairly lucky in his experience of the war. Serving in Japan in the early days of the occupation, he certainly saw plenty of horror and destruction, but as far as I know he avoided actual combat. For him, the war was perhaps less traumatic for its violence and danger than for its disruption—the way it stripped four years out of his life. When I look at pictures of him and Grandma from the early 1950s and see how clearly determined they were to be immediately, wholly adult, I think of that, and understand the urgency they must have felt. They had to catch up to life.


If you want to sit for a minute with the seductive appeal of midcentury America, I know of a couple of ways. One is to stare at this photo of Paul Newman in Venice in 1963.

But that may just be me. One that's more likely to work for others is to go to Dodger Stadium on a June night, and, as twilight creeps over Chavez Ravine, let your gaze slip a little, your focus drift away from the game and toward the ballpark itself, its cleanly geometrical concrete and plastic, the hills, the perfect southern California sky. It's 1962. The postwar boom is underway, the future all potential. Lines on graphs only go up.

It's flawed, of course. There was rot and lies and cruelty underneath, as there almost always is when we're talking about a collective dream. Hell, Dodger Stadium itself was built on some of it. But good god, in a time when optimism—a creed I largely hold with—seems more divorced than ever from the facts, that moment when we looked ahead with hope can't help but shine.

I have a smaller, more personal point of reference for that feeling, too, one that could hardly be farther from the glamour and style of Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, my paternal grandparents bought a new house in the country in rural southern Illinois, a few miles from where they'd lived in the first few years of their marriage. It was a small house, surrounded by fields, with a barn for the animals and a shed for the tractor.

A gravel driveway covered the hundred yards or so to a two-lane state highway. Across the highway, a matching drive covered a similar distance to a house owned by another young couple, the Erkmans. Both couples would stay there, neighbors and friends, raising families and farming, for almost forty years.

A farmhouse in the country is an island. At night, it's the center of a circle carved from the darkness by a utility light on a pole in the yard. There's a feeling of the frontier about it,—hints of the farmstead in Shane—even if there's a neighbor in sight and a small town seven miles away. I picture those two young couples standing on their porches at the end of a day of farming, pausing for a minute and looking up at the sweeping rural sky slowly draining of summer light. The war was behind them. Their homes were here. Their toddlers were sleeping inside. Their neighbors were across the way, just in sight. Everything was heading the right direction.


We learn who and what we want to be from those around us, but for most of us that cast comprises far more than the people we actually know. We find models in the art we experience.

Not everyone sees a recognizable future version of themselves to aspire to on screen. Michael Koresky, who is gay, notes that in Films of Endearment:
I've often wondered if other kids were seeing themselves on movie screens. For me, movies were an escape, not a mirror. I felt an estrangement from what I was seeing, comfortable in the fact that these were other people's stories. Husbands and wives, people who worked hard in very adult-looking offices to have their two-car garages or palatial city apartments; men and women who had bouts of marathon sex, who went on expensive vacations, who remodeled kitchens and paid for elaborate weddings, who raised adorable children who never resented them. For reasons as yet unexamined, none of that seemed in the cards for me, so I saw movies as time marching forward, vessels for a linear progression perhaps not meant to include me.
I can't imagine how hard it must be to almost never see yourself in the stories on screen, particularly at the very moment in your life when you're most in search of models and guidance.

But I also can't imagine simply not looking there at all. I watch Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), with its distillation of the hopes and anxieties of the young couples trying to settle down in the wake of the war, and I wonder where, if not from sources like that, my grandparents drew their models for who they wanted to be and how they wanted to live in the coming years.

Was local rural society robust enough that it sufficed? Did they see there others living lives of a shape they wanted for their own? Perhaps. There was an oil boom on, and the local population was growing. The town nearest them, Enfield, was looking ahead to crossing the 1,000-resident line and changing, formally, from a village to a town. The nearby small town I grew up outside of would build a big new high school in the 1950s. Main Street would be filled through that decade with new shops owned by locals that would linger on into my own childhood, only to have Wal-Mart dispatch them in the late 1980s with all the dispassion of a paid assassin.

By the time I was growing up, the boom was long gone. Enfield never reached 1,000 residents, and it's still declining. My own hometown was looking ragged. It was obvious my siblings and I weren't going to stay. All I knew of urban life when I was sixteen was what I'd seen on screen, but I knew that it was what I wanted. For me, at least, it was going to be better than this.


Watch as many old movies as I have lately, and you end up spending a lot of time on Wikipedia. How old is Lizabeth Scott in Desert Fury? (A: 24.) What about Joan Crawford in The Unknown? (A: No one is sure, even now! (Probably about 25.)) You see the arcs of careers, the growth of talent, the shifting relationships, both work and personal.

You also see death. For every Olivia de Havilland, there's a Wendell Corey, dead from drink at fifty-four. Lee Marvin, that towering force of nature, only made it to sixty-three; Clark Gable didn't even reach sixty. Poor Carole Lombard, good lord. Marilyn Monroe was born in 1926, a year after my grandfather, and she's been dead nearly sixty years. What different lives the two of them had, on every axis.

Fate deals us all different hands, then it compounds the unfairness by how much or little we're made to pay for our mistakes or rewarded for our good choices. Bad habits or errors of judgment snuff out one life, while another person, similarly heedless, skates. Virtue is not always rewarded, vice haphazardly punished. To have made it to ninety-five in good health, with family around you, is to have been afforded an uncommon grace.


We went to the movies Friday night for the opening of F9. It was big and loud and deliriously, lovably dopey, and we were there with a group of friends and surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd and we loved every minute. We watched staggeringly beautiful people do staggeringly stupid things in a story that carries almost no lasting cultural, intellectual, or emotional weight, and it was glorious.

To have made it through the pandemic and be going to the movies again is a joy and a gift.