Movies We Love in the Time of COVID
It is April at this writing and the Oscar season is upon us. The award presentation program was on April 25 much later than the usual February time frame. We have seen three of the eight nominees for best picture.
I love the excerpts from the nominees that attempt to show the “Oscar Moment” in the film. Every great movie has at least one Oscar Moment when the actor and the story become one and the discerning, attentive watcher will get it. Like the moment in Forest Gump when Jenny tells Forest that little Forest is his child. The look on Forest’s face and the slight step back that he takes before he asks Jenny haltingly, “Is he smart?” is heartbreaking and uplifting. It is a quintessential Oscar Moment that strikes me every time.
The Oscar shows have been a favorite of mine from the days of black-and-white TV and the location at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I remember the many times that Bob Hope hosted or co-hosted and the Billy Crystal hosted laugh fests. But it hasn’t been the same during the pandemic.
Do you remember the last movie you saw in a movie theater? During the time of COVID-19, Melody and I have not been to an actual movie theater in over a year.
Like many of us we have watched scores of movies in the comfort of our home. That is great. Easy digital access to a dizzying variety and number of choices and for a fraction of the cost of going to the movies and paying Chicago-commodity-trading prices for a bag of popcorn. There is immediate unembarrassed access to the bathroom.
But it isn’t the same as the seats in the dark of the theater, with popcorn in hand watching the previews and waiting for the feature film to roll. In the theater we are totally committed to watching the movie. We don’t get up to let the dog out. The phone doesn’t demand attention. The doorbell doesn’t ring, and there aren’t (or shouldn’t be) side conversations such as, “What are we going to do for dinner tonight? I think the Enchiladas from last week have gone around the corner.”
Going to the Show in the Old World
My family and friends know that I am a movie lover and have been since my childhood. Some of my fondest early memories have to do with going to and watching the movies, or as my Mother would have said, “Going to the show.”
In my early memory the neighborhood where we lived on the wrong side of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, there was a little shopping area within walking distance of our big, old, drafty house. On Saturday I could go to the neighborhood movie theater, the name of which I have forgotten, and gain admission by turning in six Pepsi Cola bottle caps.
In those days admission to the movie theater wasn’t just for the marquee picture. It was admission to a variety of presentations that could last for many hours. It would include a news segment, followed by an episode of a serial, then came not one but often two cartoons, Looney Tunes with that unmistakable theme music, or Popeye with Olive Oyl, and Bluto, then of course, came one of my favorites, the previews.
We might even have a sing-along. The song music would come on and the lyrics would appear on the screen with a bouncing ball that tapped on the words to guide us. The ball would bounce on a word that was held for more than one count. I loved the sing-along, which may explain my long-standing fascination with Karaoke which began many years ago and continues to this day. I have been known to clear out an entire room with a single version of “New York/New York.”
Other memories of my early movie going experiences include going to the show with my mother. My mother was a saint. I am the oldest of four boys, and she and I were close. We would occasionally go to the movies with her. I’m pretty sure the first time we saw the Wizard of Oz was with her.
My mother had many wonderful qualities, but punctuality wasn’t one of them. As a result, my father often sat in his car in the driveway, engine running, honking the horn, waiting for my mother to appear. This time insensitivity of my mother affected our movie going. I don’t recall a single time that we weren’t late to the movie. Which meant climbing into seats in the dark often begging our pardon as we tried not to trip over people who arrived on time.
Getting to the movie late meant that we saw the movie from whenever we arrived until the end. Then we waited as the lights went up and people clambered over us for the lights to go down and the projector to roll. I remember that the late arrival wasn’t all bad. During the interval, we could move to better seats on the aisle or go to the bathroom or concession stand.
In those days, the management didn’t clear out the theater before the next showing. They did come through and remove the trash, but they didn’t mop up soda spills–which meant the sticky steps would remain until lights out after the last showing.
We also had some idea of the content of the film, depending on how late we were. I remember that often my interest was piqued by what we had seen. The show would begin with all the lead-ins and then the feature would roll. We would sit and wait until my mother would lean over to us and ask, “Is this where we came in?” More than once I remember asking if we could stay and watch the rest of the movie again even though we already knew how it ended!
The Tivoli Sets a High Bar for the Moviegoer
One of my fondest movie memories from childhood was going to the famed Tivoli Theater located on Broad Street in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. The Tivoli, as we called it, opened in 1921. It was covered in marble, satin, and chandeliers in the lobby. The theater itself boasted box seats, although I never saw anyone sitting in them.
I always wanted to be sure and get to the Tivoli before the show began. I didn’t want any “This is where we came in,” at the Tivoli. When the show was about to start, not one, but two heavy brocade curtains were pulled from either side. Then the screen would light up, often with the grinning face of Porky Pig from Looney Tunes, or a flexing Popeye the Sailor Man, created by Adolph Zukor, no relation, beaming down on us.
We always wanted to sit near the center of the theater, on the aisle. I was reared a devout Catholic and attended Mass often– six days a week when I was enrolled in elementary and middle school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) elementary and Notre Dame High School. As a result, when we approached our seats and moved to sit down, I often felt the urge to genuflect before entering the row of seats, just like we did at eleven o’clock Mass at OLPH. It wasn’t that much of a stretch because for me going to the movies was a lot like going to church. We came together at an appointed hour. We sat in the same auditorium/sanctuary and we prayed that the movie would be good.
We also learned from the movies about heartache, courage, passion (the G rated type at least), sadness, jubilation, and who were the good guys and the bad guys. The hats had a lot to do with that. The stars of those early days, Gene Autrey and Audie Murphy were usually the good guys wearing the white hats, like Alan Ladd in the 1953 western classic Shane and the black-hatted Jack Palance as the villain in the same film.
The Tivoli had scarlet-red velour upholstered chairs. Just sitting in them made me feel special. As we walked in to go to our seats in the auditorium, we passed the classical paintings on the wall. One I recall was of a battle in full progress with a battle “square” formed of men holding pikes and spears to repel the horsemen who were attacking from all sides. It was beautiful and vivid. I looked for it every time we went to the Tivoli.
Date Night at the Movies
When I was a teenager in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a big date-night outing was going to the movies. This was in the late fifties, early sixties; and the multi-screen cineplexes had not arrived. A movie location with two screens was considered amazing. Theater seating was tightly packed with no hint of concern for comfort with recliners and cup holders. Everything was basic. But that was okay with us. That is what we knew. We were content to just be there with the projectionist making the movie magic happen on schedule.
Going to the movies with a date meant that there would be proximity to your date, you were sitting next to one another and in the dark. Touching elbows could be inadvertent or on purpose. It was hard to tell if your date would be interested in anything more such as holding hands or permitting you to put your arm around her shoulders. That move would be practiced by many of us; and once you had pretended to be stretching and made the move without touching your date, you had to deal with the real danger of losing circulation in forearm, hands and fingers. Keeping one’s arm in that exaggerated position for a long period of time was tough. None of us had the nerve to pull the popcorn stunt made famous by Mickey Rourke in the 1982 movie Diner.
What Do You Want to See?
When I was a kid my choice of movies was left to chance because I would watch whatever was playing at the local theater. I remember being amazed and fascinated by the 1953 black-and-white monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It became an early example of a genre of prehistoric beasts being awakened or created by atomic bombs or testing or something “atomic.” I later loved the 1970 film Colossus: The Forbin Project which foretold the disastrous consequences of computers taking control of the world. This predated the advent of Skynet that destroyed the world of humans only to be saved by John Connor who was threatened by the Terminator in the 1984 classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton. They never explained why the Terminator had a German accent.
As I grew older, my taste in movies became more selective. But my choices were limited by the lower- ranking of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the film distribution process of the late 50s early 60s. A movie making waves in the big cities took a while to make it to the Tivoli or other venue in town. In 1952, High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly was a hit. I’ll never forget the great story that was later described as a metaphor for the McCarthyism era and the concomitant Hollywood blacklist of the day. The theme song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin” by Tex Ritter sill gets me to this day.
During my teens in high school and years in college, the drive-in movie was a big thing. I remember distinctly the drive-in box office and the turn into the big lot with the berms built into lines throughout the area. We always wanted a slot about midway to the screen because if you were too close you lost part of the screen and too far away the picture would be hazy. In the winter, the window hanger speakers could also be heaters. And you always had to make sure that your speaker was working.
As we waited for the film to start, there would be spotlights playing on the screen from the cars with those spotlights that were attached to the driver’s side doors. I always thought that was a goofy thing to do because no one knew who was doing it and it added nothing to the movie experience.
More than once our dad took us to the 23rd Street Drive-in movie. One movie I remember particularly was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Kirk Douglas and James Mason as Captain Nemo. Before we went to the drive-in, we went to the A&W Root Beer drive-in, ala American Graffiti, right across the street. We had foot-long chili cheese hot dogs and frosty mugs of root beer. That was a great treat. My mother hated root beer, so she had a Pepsi.
The movie was terrific, full of action and monsters. Nemo was a great character, a conflicted anti-hero, who played the organ as he watched the ocean-dwelling creatures swimming by the great window in his cabin.
20,000 Leagues was in the same genre and grandiosity as Around the World in Eighty Days with David Niven as the adventurous traveler and his loyal manservant Passepartout played by the classic Mexican comic Cantinflas. The movie was glamorous, adventurous, and elegant. I had read the Classic Comic many times and knew the story by heart.
In college, going to the movies often meant going with a date or with one’s buddies. In our little college town of Durham, North Carolina, there weren’t many choices. I recall that the big Northgate Mall had a double-screen auditorium. But the little downtown theater, which I think was named The Criterion, did well playing the 1963 hit Tom Jones with Albert Finney and Susannah York. It played for months. The marquee read, “Tom Jones lives here.” The movie was raucous and racy. The eating scene is still talked about to this day. I think I saw it at least twice, maybe three times.
My movie experiences in later years have often included watching the same film many times. During the early nineties, I co-hosted a movie review radio program on a local university affiliate station of NPR. The program was called Focus on Film. It ran weekly for several years. My co-host and I would always take time during the various holidays to mention our favorites for the season. These were films like It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and You’ve Got Mail. For some reason, seasonal classics like these are okay to watch repeatedly; but why not The Terminator or The Godfather?
My wife Melody says I have a list of movies that, if they are playing on any channel, I will stop and look. It doesn’t matter where the movie playing time is, the very beginning or the last ten minutes, I love them and will watch. I call these the Playlist Movies. Everyone should have a list of them even if you are not a movie nut like me. Here is a partial list of mine:
My Playlist Movies
- High Noon
- Twelve O’clock High
- The Terminator
- The Godfather, The Godfather II
- Forest Gump
- Young Frankenstein
- Christmas Vacation
- A Christmas Story
- When Harry Met Sally
- Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
- Rosemary’s Baby
- Easy Rider
- The Deer Hunter
- Being There
- Galaxy Quest
- Top Gun
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
- Animal House
- Old School
Here is another partial list of my all-time favorites that are not in wide circulation or discussion today. These are some of the movies that changed my life or played an important role in my life that are not in my Playlist Movies. I call these the Unforgettables. Here is a partial list.
- 2001 A Space Odyssey
- Apocalypse Now
- High Noon
- 12 O’clock High
- Easy Rider
- Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli version)
Sports movies are another genre that I, especially love. Here are some of my favorites. Most of these could easily go in the Unforgettables list.
My Unforgetttables Sports Movies
- The Natural
- Bull Durham
- A League of Their Own
- Money Ball
- Bad News Bears
- Major League
- Remember the Titans
- Friday Night Lights
- Miracle on Ice (2004)
Another group of movies is what I call The Quotables. Melody and I often refer to quotes from these films in our everyday life. Not many people know what we are talking about and why we smile or snicker because we know how the quote applies to what we are experiencing in the moment.
- Cool Hand Luke – “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”
- Independence Day –“ I’ve gotta get me one of these.”
- Young Frankenstein – “That’s right, he was my boyfriend, Taffeta.” “What hump, Sedagive?”
- Men in Black – “And get a decorator for your house because –Damn!”
- Beverly Hills Cop – “This is the cleanest nicest police car I have ever been in.”
- Trading Places – “Because I’m a Karate man. A Karate man bleeds on the inside, so his opponents don’t
- know he’s hurt. But you wouldn’t know nothing about because you’re a Barry White MFer.”
- Caddyshack – “Who’s your decorator, Benihana?” “How about a Fresca?”
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – “He’s a righteous dude.” “ He’ll keep calling me, calling me.” “Goddammit it.”
- When Harry Met Sally – “Please promise me I’ll never have to go out there again.” “ I’ll have what she’s
- having.” “Get rid of that Garage Sale, Roy Rogers, wagon-wheel coffee table.”
- Christmas Vacation – “Shitter’s full.” “You serious, Clark?” “Eddy, if I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised.”
- Dodgeball – “That guy’s a dickhead.”
- Cedar Rapids – The speech from The Wire
Ultimately the movie experience is personal. You may be influenced by the critics, the pundits, the easily prejudiced, and those who didn’t really watch the movie. But you, the viewer must decide what each movie means to you. The viewer is the person the writers, directors, and actors are trying to reach with their message. I remember walking out of some of the long-running programs and finding that day had turned to night. I thought it cool that I had spent an entire day in a magical land. Now I had returned to my world better in some way to have seen the realistic world or suspended disbelief to go to a galaxy far, far away as seen by the makers of the film telling their story.
My hope is that soon we will be able to return to the theaters and wait for the lights to go down and our spirits rise in expectation for that projector light from above.
Fred Zuker, April 2021