As before….reverse order…catch as catch can. 20 days, 10 movies.
June 1-Return of Sabata (1971, Gianfranco Parolini, 1st Viewing)
Because I keep hoping there’s more to spaghetti westerns than Sergio Leone. Perhaps there is. The Sabata films aren’t it. Recommendations welcome.
June 4-The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the most narratively complex of Mann’s western outings with James Stewart, all of which are fantastic, narratively and every other way. This one has more politics, more death and a great John McEntire villain. I used to count it least among the Mann/Stewart collaborations. If Corrine Calvert’s shirttail kid ever grows on me the way Ruth Roman’s saloon mistress has, it just might become my favorite.
June 7-Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller, 1st Viewing)
Visiting with friends, so off my beaten path. Not without its charms, but its own idea that its faux-nihilism is “edgy” (shared by many a critic last summer) is by far the movie’s funniest element. When I heard twenty f-words in two minutes, I kept thinking about an average kvetching session at my office breaks ten years ago (when I still occasionally hung around an office) and all I could hear was Rooster Cogburn saying “This is like women talking.” Which leads me to wonder: Is it that the scriptwriters know….or that they don’t know? It does have Morena Baccarin and a sappy ending straight out of 1939, so there’s that.
June 15-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, 1st Viewing)
Still visiting. But not quite so far off the path. I do try to keep up. I suspect if I’d seen it in the theater I’d have enjoyed it more than any Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, though that’s not saying a whole lot. As usual, the best and liveliest character was a droid. Shouldn’t that be telling somebody something by now?
June 17-The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich, Umpteenth Viewing)
Home. Can you tell? Time for a palate cleanser to get the road dust out of my mouth. But, besides that, for the care which so many good actors took to etch something memorable out of what could have been rote or even cardboard characters. Everybody who gets any time is perfect–Jim Brown every bit as committed to getting it right as John Cassevetes, and vice versa–and Aldrich always did know his stuff. Is it a good sign that I never can remember exactly who gets out alive? I can’t say, but I still hold my breath.
June 18-Dawn at Socorro (1954, George Sherman, Umpteenth Viewing)
For it’s subtle foregrounding of the saloon life that’s hanging around in the background of hundreds of westerns and shoved to the front in dozens more with far less effect. For some of the most beautiful technicolor cinematography, inside and out, of any western (meaning any film). For the precision and economy of a deceptively languid plot (which fooled me into thinking not much was going on the first time I watched it). For Piper Laurie, stopping the barroom buzz for the length of a held breath the first time she walks into the saloon that’s going to swallow her. For the best use of a train station between High Noon and How the West Was Won. For the way Edgar Buchanan’s desiccated sheriff reads the script’s funniest lines as though he’s daring somebody–anybody–to laugh. And for the way Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-go-straight gunfighter says “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.” when he’s asked if he knows who’s coming for him, just before he steps into the street to find out how many more men he has to kill to save a girl he met on the stage twenty-four hours earlier from ever having to say the same.
June 19-The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966, Michael O’Herlihy, Umpeenth Viewing)
For Disney’s last great swashbuckler–and, unless you count Star Wars (which owed more to Disney than anyone likes to admit), Hollywood’s. And for being no worse as “history” (upon which it is loosely based) than a lot of films which had far less excuse for taking liberties. Highlighted by Peter McEnery’s burning intensity as the lead. Even if we was English-playing-Irish, he looks, sounds and moves like the sort of charismatic lad who would inspire deep loyalties among friends and deeper hatreds among enemies (the latter portrayed nicely here by a memorably snake-like Scottish-playing-English Gordon Jackson). The duels and sieges are on a human scale and there’s a rare moment in the final assault when the burning, age-old hatred between Irish and English can be viscerally felt as the Irishmen try to retake a castle where their women are being held hostage. I might have fonder memories than most because this is the first “new” movie I can recall seeing in a theater, just before my sixth birthday. I don’t pretend to objectivity. But I’ve seen it many times since–the first time after one of those thirty-year searches which are bound to raise unreasonable expectations–and it’s never failed to make me smile.
June 19-White Heat (1948, Raoul Walsh, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the only film that’s definitive as noir, gangster and prison flick without being limited by the conventions of those or any other genre. For Jimmy Cagney’s Psycho, Edmond O’Brien’s undercover G-Man, Virginia Mayo’s Two-Timing Moll and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Barker spin, all definitive as hell. If the finale doesn’t go right through your spine, you probably ain’t alive.
June 20-Guilty as Sin (1993, Sidney Lumet, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the absence of illusions about where the world was heading when it was made. Released a year before the O.J. Simpson murders and two years before the trial, it has a lot of the more cynical elements nailed in place. I think it hasn’t gotten more credit because it deals in class rather than race and race is what a lot of people still think the Simpson trial was about (it’s much easier that way). Also for Lumet’s use of sound….I’ve watched this, at times, with my eyes closed and it makes a fantastic radio drama. But it’s hard work not watching, because Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay have what they used to call chemistry…only it’s hate chemistry and when two people that attractive have that going you have to conclude either something’s going on off-screen or they’re much better at this acting thing than they’ve been given credit for. Be careful of this one. It seems conventional–like civilization hasn’t necessarily run off the rails–but it’s liable to sneak up on you.
June 20-Stagecoach (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)
What, you think I need a reason to watch Stagecoach? Not hardly. But if you need a reason, watch for the way Ford introduces practically everyone pictured here in the space of about eight minutes and never lets you forget them. Orson Welles screened it forty times while he was filming Citizen Kane, just so he could make you remember half that many people half as well…and he just about got what he needed for his greatest film from what might not rank in Ford’s top ten.
Anthony Mann does not yet get his due. There are occasional professional contrarians who will tell you he’s better than John Ford, but they are a cult and Mann, who would have been the first to tell you he wasn’t quite John Ford, deserves far better. I’ve been counting him as one of my five favorite directors for a while now, but in the latest list from “They Shoot Pictures Don’t They,” the most exhaustive ranking of great films available, he has one entry (The Naked Spur, at #969 of a thousand).
That’s one fewer than Michael Mann, who I still think of as the Miami Vice guy, and the same number as John Avildsen, who’s on the list for Rocky.
All of which adds up to just another brick in the towering wall of our modern delusion. Mann made a handful of noirs and a hatful of westerns (hence the Ford comparisons) that are better than anything Michael Mann has done. He also made these two epics from the early sixties, which time is beginning to reveal as masterworks in their own right.
Watching them together (as I’ve done since I discovered them a few years back…this was my third go-round), in these hurly-burly days is an experience. And, for me, what was even more salient this time was having recently seen Marketa Lazarova, the Czech film from 1967 which I wrote about here, for the first time.
The long view of history I mentioned there is as fiercely present here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mann’s films served as some sort of inspiration in how to handle narrative and editing in Marketa or any other epic-minded film that uses similar devices to collapse time and space for the purpose of expanding our imaginations.
Of course these carry some Hollywood gloss–big stars playing against ethnic type, fabulous sets and costumes, casts of literally thousands. But once you absorb all that, and understand the level of obsession that went into these films (obsessions that encompassed and enfolded Mann himself, producer Samuel Bronston, the set designers, even the composers, all properly lauded in the fine documentaries that accompany the 2-disc versions from the Miriam Collection) it’s possible to recognize just how thorny and disorienting they are, how fully they (like Marketa) capture not merely lost worlds but lost value systems.
El Cid was a big hit, so big it made The Fall of the Roman Empire’s impossible air of art-house risk possible. For better or worse, the presence of Charlton Heston, then strongly identified in the movie-going public’s mind with The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, massive hits that had done a fine job of capturing value systems not yet lost in the previous decade, was able to carry El Cid to similar box office heights. But he refused to work again with his co-star, Sophia Loren, on the second film. Mann was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable narrative in El Cid. Any chance that he wouldn’t push past the edge in the followup was gone the minute Heston refused to sign on.
Whatever the reasons, Heston’s absence allows Fall to play as the more contemporary film.
I won’t say “better” because I’m a long way from comprehending either film at the level required to make that judgment. But, purely in artistic terms, Heston’s absence may have been as much a blessing as it was a box office curse. Fall became a famous flop, effectively breaking both Mann and Bronston in ways that went beyond the merely financial. Sadly, neither lived to see it redeemed by recent critical appraisals in a way that Cleopatra, a similar back-breaker from the same period, never will be. El Cid needed Heston because it’s a hero’s narrative. Fall didn’t need him (and one wonders if this was the real reason he passed on it), because it’s an anti-hero’s narrative.
The neck-snapping irony in this, is that El Cid is set in a moment when the Christendom just emerging (sotto voce because it’s never mentioned) in The Fall of the Roman Empire, is being saved from extinction.
The further irony is that Fall is even more opulent, something that seems impossible while you are actually watching El Cid.
In terms of both spectacle and historical accuracy, Bronston was determined to make David O. Selznick look like a kid in short pants. With Fall he succeeded. It took me this third viewing to comprehend how much his obsession with the details of Rome’s face, at the singular moment when the mask was finally beginning to show its cracks, has as much to do with creating the film’s unique aura of displacement as Mann’s sudden shifts of tone, mood, lighting, weather.
In the midst of the towering monuments to Rome’s glory, literally recreated with stunning scale and specificity on a plain in Spain, Christopher Plummer’s Commodus (the role of his career), and Stephen Boyd’s hapless Livius, really do seem like they are being toyed with by ancient and angry gods.
Livius himself–the hero Charlton Heston wouldn’t play–is redeemed only by his devotion to the old ways and Commodus’s sister. And it becomes clear, over time, that these virtues are inextricable from a stubbornness and pride that end up costing the lives of nearly everyone and everything he holds dear.
Boyd puts every bit of the bitterness that would come from such a man’s recognition of his own failures into his final line, a line sufficiently damning that one wonders how anyone thought they could get a hit out of this.
What we’re left with is indescribable opulence (it really has to be seen to be believed and I can’t even get my head around what these films must look like on the big screen), endless back-stabbing among cabals who vie for the loyalty of the military and the deep state, a hapless legislative body made exclusively of fops and fools, the endless peddling of influence. All these qualities course through El Cid and finally overwhelm the characters who populate The Fall of the Roman Empire.
The history runs in reverse, as history is wont to do.
The first film replicates the preservation of what rose in the place of what fell in the second film.
Whatever order one views them, these films, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire, which broke Samuel Bronston’s bank account and Anthony Mann’s health, are in the DNA of everything from Star Wars to Kurosawa’s late epics to the best work of the similarly under-appreciated Ridley Scott (who now must labor under the burden of CGI, an empire whose reach and grasp far exceed Rome’s…one hopes that Mann appreciated how lucky he was to fall in with a fellow visionary like Bronston even for a heartbeat).
You can take your pick of which reminds you most of the City by the Potomac these days, as the man who the Alt-Right likes to tweak all and sundry by referring to as the God Emperor ascends, rising from the bottomless sea of our present corruption, within which the deepest muck he was born to rule.
The best line anyone will write about Carrie Fisher is in Sheila O’Malley’s lovely tribute at Roger Ebert’s site: “It’s rare to have your father leave your mother for Elizabeth Taylor.”
Fame’s a beast, an especially hungry one if you didn’t ask for it. Star Wars, which must have seemed like a job of work when she signed on, probably derailed any chance she had at fulfilling herself as herself and the performances she gave in Shampoo, When Harry Met Sally, Hannah and Her Sisters, hint at who that might have been, as surely as the biting wit in Postcards From the Edge provides the best glimpse into who she became instead–who she probably had to become to survive.
Her death in proximity to George Michael’s is one of those instructive coincidences. Two fine people made–and then unmade–by late boomer excess. The kind that kills you at 50, 60, instead of 27.
On the rise, though, they each left a mark beyond mere fame: Fisher was one of the earliest to speak and write openly about addiction, star-childness, bipolarity. According to reports that have circulated here and there over the years, she also kept Alec Guinness engaged on the sets of the only Star Wars movies that will matter in the end (and will matter, in part, because Guinness, under her influence, didn’t totally phone them in). In light of her becoming a legendary script doctor and best selling novelist, rumors will always persist that one reason those early movies are the only ones that have life–that matter as anything more than a cash register–is because she was there to deliver the best lines, uncredited, especially to her own character. Given the quality of dialogue George Lucas has tended to write when left on his own, those rumors will never die.
Michael was one of the few white artists to cross over to the R&B charts in the rock and roll era proper–to take full advantage of the space Elvis had opened up in the fifties. He beat “Blurred Lines” to the punch by thirty years and he did it with better records, many of which he wrote and produced himself. And, for better or worse, there’s no boy in “boy band” without him to provide the template.
All Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, did was whip up an entire universe–and a beautiful, enchanting novel–out of stories he invented to amuse his young daughters. Years later he revealed that the stories had been shaped by his experience–and those of his unit–in Operation Market Garden, the WWII expedition that culminated in the Allied failure at the bridge at Arnhem, which inspired the poet-journalist Cornelius Ryan to give the phrase “A Bridge Too Far” to the English language.
The epic adventure of the rabbits, the Star Wars universe, the rise of the boy band.
Turns out they all had one thing in common and it was the single element you would bet against being the key to such artificial worlds: Travel to whatever faraway land you can find or imagine and it’s the people who matter after all.
Just like Paul Simon said in the song he wrote about the one who was his wife for a while:
(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)
December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)
Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.
December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.
December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)
For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?
December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)
Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.
December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)
To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.
December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)
Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.
December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.
December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)
For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.
December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.
December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)
Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!” once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.
I’m happy to be participating in the latest blogathon from Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Please click on the link to visit their places and read as many entries as you can over the next few days. It’s always fun and enlightening!
The subject is “Things I Learned at the Movies.”
For me, this is a short list. The only people who ever taught me anything “at the movies” are John Ford and Janet Munro.
John Ford’s a book, or maybe a library.
Janet Munro is…well, something that can’t be found in books.
She’s my first movie love.
You learn a lot from your first movie love. Whether or not it ever connects to anything or anyone you encounter in the “real” world (hereafter, Realworld), it’s likely to leave a mark that never quite washes off.
When, exactly, Janet Munro put that mark on me is murky now. Looking up things on the internet, I see that her breakout film, Disney’s 1959, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, was re-released in time to scare the bejesus out of eight-year-old me in 1969. Sorry, but even if I’d been of an age for a first movie crush, it wouldn’t have survived the Banshee and the Death Coach. What I remember about the first time I saw Janet Munro was it was the last time I slept with my parents.
Later that same year, Swiss Family Robinson, which premiered December 10, 1960, two days after I was born (be sure to keep up with the serendipity here, there’s more than a bit), was also re-released, and my nine-year-old self saw it some time in 1970.
The second time I saw Janet Munro, what I remembered was the pirates.
Hard to say. My memory says the film was released again in about 1972 and I swear I once saw documentation to that effect. If so, the information seems to have disappeared down every memory hole but mine. That being the case, I’ll trust mine and swear I was eleven or twelve–that the eagerness with which I attended that second re-release not once but twice (unheard of in my youth as my parents were not big on either going to the movies or sending me with someone else, though they never objected if someone wanted to take me to a Disney movie) is not only fondly, but accurately, recalled–and a whole lot more interested in girls than I was at eight or nine.
All of which makes me now wonder how I really felt when my about-to-be first movie crush showed up…as a boy.
In the hands of pirates, of course. Dreamland pirates–everything in Swiss Family Robinson is from Dreamland–but scary enough to mark the memory.
Whenever I started crushing on her, it probably wasn’t just here. I can’t even say, at this distance, if I knew she was going to turn into a girl. I can’t say if I knew it when I was nine and I can’t say if I remembered it at twelve. Maybe I was fooled the first time. Maybe I forgot the second time. Maybe both. Maybe neither.
In any case, I doubt I was much concerned. At nine and twelve, there’s such a thing as being caught up in the story and the spectacle. When Swiss Family Robinson came around, I was that.
Having rarely gone to movies in theaters, a condition that would continue until I could drive to them myself, those I did see tended to make a larger-than-life impression, even in the crummy little second-run strip mall venues where most of my limited movie-going experience played out. Swiss Family Robinson made the biggest impression of all. It was the only movie I saw three times. It was the only movie I saw that was perfect in every way and stayed perfect in memory.
And then, that last time around–and the real reason I took, or badgered for, the rare opportunity to go on back-to-back weekends–was because, by then, I knew that, somewhere along the way,Janet Munro turned into a girl. The girl, as it happened.
From this (where I must have been catching on, assuming, you know, I didn’t already “know” or remember)…
…and this (and surely by now)…
…to this (which I’m not even sure would have done the trick, except that my first movie crush was an excellent actress, and, well, it was a plot point, what they call a “reveal” even in Dreamland)…
….and this (the part where my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, and his surly older brother, James MacArthur, aka Fritz, turned into gentlemen….at least until they started fighting over her)…
…and, finally, this…
…at which point my reaction, there in the cheap seats and the precious dark, was probably something along the lines of this….
…a reaction I would, as it turned out, have only twice in the “real” world, neither of which ever had a chance to lead anywhere, and which, I realized much later on, when the miracle of home video allowed me to revisit SFR, conditioned all my other movie crushes, too.
I never had cause to regret my Fate. If somebody had to be the first one who left me no choice but to surrender, I couldn’t have asked for better. Whenever it was that I realized “Bertie” was really “Roberta,” I thereafter made no distinctions. After the big change hit me, she was always Janet Munro to me, in this and every other movie I ever saw her in (including the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and her other great Disney movies, Darby O’Gill and The Third Man on the Mountain, where that lucky little so-and-so, James MacArthur, wasn’t quite so surly but just as damn lucky). At least she was Janet Munro whenever she wasn’t “the girl in Swiss Family Robinson.” That was a phrase that brought a smile and a nod to every male my age back in the days when I–never having seen either The Godfather or Walking Tall, the two movies everybody else named as their favorite in the early and mid-seventies whenever the “what’s your favorite movie” conversation started–would admit Swiss Family Robinson was it for me.
In the now forgotten days before it was memory-swamped by Star Wars that was an answer that always changed the conversation around, as in, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one!” More often than not, the other kid would change his pick. A horse’s head in the bed was cool and all and Buford Pusser taking a baseball bat to somebody’e head even cooler….but they weren’t pirates, and they sure weren’t Janet Munro.
Well, Star Wars did come, God love it, and I still think of it as that admittedly fun movie made by some guy who has never proved he watched any movie except SFR from beginning to end, because there’s no other movie where he’s filched every single element–though the cinnabuns he put on Janet Munro’s doppelganger, Carrie Fisher, were all his own idea–even if he no longer admits SFR director Ken Annakin’s name was the source of Anakin Skywalker, the only character who appeared in all six of the SW franchise movies Lucas was directly involved in. (I don’t hold it against him. Just shows he had good taste. But honestly he should come clean.)
It didn’t matter that, in Dreamland, where everything should go right, she preferred my doppelganger’s older brother to him…and, by extension, to me. That extension still leaves a bit of a mark on me during every one of the not-infrequent occasions when I renew my acquaintance with the movie via the still-applicable technological miracle of home video. But in the end even that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, aka “the one who didn’t get the girl,” turned out to be gay in Realworld and that he was left with a hellishly hard road to hoe as a result (about as hellish as you’d expect if that central fact complicated the transition every Disney kid, including Janet Munro, who wasn’t really a kid, found so difficult to make in even the best of circumstances).
It doesn’t matter that she was part of a grand tradition, invisible to me at the time, of the tomboy forced to live by her wits, which Disney had revived and/or invented with Glynis Johns surviving Henry VIII’s court in Annakin’s The Sword and the Rose and finalized by first turning Hayley Mills into the All-American Girl (she, like Munro and most of the other girls-next-door America has ever taken to its heart, was a child of show-biz…an English girl is fine, just so she’s a trouper) and then sending her all around the world.
It doesn’t matter that the tradition died with Disney (Walt, that is, not, alas, the corporation) and it doesn’t matter that Janet Munro (already in her mid-twenties when SFR was made) grew up.
It doesn’t mater that one Sean Connery has confessed that, on the set of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (also his breakout movie), she was the only actor who ever intimidated him, by virtue of being the daughter of Alec Munro, a Scottish Music Hall legend. Something along the lines of, if he didn’t measure up in the singing scene, he could never go home again.
None of that has ever mattered.
It probably does matter that she was who she was.
Scottish even if she was born in England (the way I was Scottish even if I was born in America–serendipity perhaps).
It certainly mattered that all that roughhouse show-biz training left her, in Annakin’s accounting, game for anything. That stuff shows and, at nine and twelve, a girl who can ride and shoot and climb trees and mountains is a catch no matter what other qualities she does or does not possess. And Janet Munro hardly lacked for those “other” qualities, which make a subliminal impression even a nine and a not-so-subliminal impression soon thereafter.
I don’t know if it matters that, on the set of SFR, when she was giving a performance in which no single element has ever broken down under dozens of viewings, she was severely depressed and already hitting the bottle that would help kill her–two days before my birthday–in the year I fell in love with her.
Serendipity can be as depressing as anything else in this world.
It’s only from this distance that I see how unlikely she was–that one twenty-six-year-old actress could convincingly play a fourteen-year-old-boy…
…and a sixteen-year-old girl you wouldn’t mind hiring for a babysitter…or taking home to mother…
..even if, one, two, three, she was capable of sparking, spurring and manipulating a romantic rivalry…
..without ceasing to be a down-and-dirty action heroine…
…her own stunt-woman…
…or, as the reaction-shot glue in the greatest action sequence ever filmed (yes, Lucas lifted it from a jungle to a space-ship’s garbage bin…and, great as that was, he came short), the all-time Damsel in Distress…
…in a sequence that otherwise involved Tommy Kirk and James MacArthur (again doing most of their own stunt-work) in a fight with a twenty-foot anaconda that I pray I live to see on a big screen once more before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
All that and, down at the very end, she had to let my doppelganger down. First hard (sometimes there’s no other way)…one, two, three
..then, because the heart wants what it wants, even, or especially, in Dreamland, harder…one, two, three…
…without letting Realworld girls forget they still wanted to be her, or Realworld boys–even those who saw themselves more in Ernst than Fritz–forget they still wanted to be with her, or Realworld parents, in that faraway land of 1960, which now may as well be 1690, forget they wanted their girls and boys to be like or with some version of her.
With or without the associations of a first crush, Swiss Family Robinson still has a Dreamland glow about it, which, for better or worse, modernity cannot disturb. Those involved felt it. Ken Annakin, the man who formed the bridge between Golden Age swashbuckler masters like Michael Curtiz and the best work of his own acolytes, Lucas and Steven Speilberg (none of whom were better than he was–with action movies, there’s no such thing as better than Ken Annakin), was exceptionally and justifably proud of it. Tommy Kirk, who survived hell and, with last year’s untimely passing of Kevin Corcoran, is now also the last surviving main cast member, has said it’s the movie he’d like to be remembered for and that he’s the most proud of.
Until James MacArthur’s death, they exchanged Christmas cards every year and signed them “Fritz” and “Ernst.”
On the great documentary and commentary track where I learned a lot of this, (they attend the special two-disc DVD that Disney put out a few years back–accept no substitutes), everyone seemed to have fond but not very specific memories of Janet Munro. In his autobiography, Annakin recalled her fondly as “the complete trouper, ready to try anything.” By way of proof he mentioned the only two occasions she complained.
The first was after he hung her off the side of an Alp in The Third Man on the Mountain (which I should mention here is the greatest mountain-climbing movie ever made…a lot of what Annakin did is the greatest, even if few remember or acknowledge it now). When she was finally hauled up, she said, “You might have padded the harness. I think I’ve lost both my boobs.”
The second was after she took a fall from a galloping zebra in SFR. She walked past him and said: “I don’t know why I do all these crazy things for you!”
That was the full litany of her complaints on two of history’s most grueling action shoots, on which there was next to no stunt-doubling and, of course, no CGI.
Scottish Music Hall was apparently a hard training ground.
I wish she and Annakin had been able to do more together. I bet that would matter.
More than that, I wish she had lived a longer and happier life, long enough, perhaps, to realize, as the other Disney kids did, that their best films are worth remembering and derive most of their iconic power and joy from the performances given by the best of them, among whom not even Tommy Kirk or Hayley Mills rank higher than her.
Sad as the passing of any person is at the age of 38, it is infinitely sadder when it was your first movie crush and she died in the year you fell in love with her and you are left with a forever-just-out-of-reach feeling–or perhaps illusion–that only someone with whom you were truly simpatico could have affected you so, here in the real world.
(Eddie Cochran and Sharon Sheeley. At eighteen, Sheeley was the first solo female songwriter to write a #1 record for the Billboard Pop Chart. (It was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.” She stalled her car in front of his house and, when he came out to help her, convinced him she was on her way to deliver the song to Elvis and would he like to hear it first?) She was riding next to Cochran–by some accounts as his fiance–in England, when he was killed in a car crash in April, 1960. After recovering from severe injuries herself, she teamed with Jackie DeShannon to form the first (and, frankly, only**) successful all-female songwriting team in the history of American music. You wonder why I keep chipping away at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Because it’s a worthwhile institution overall and I cling to the hope that, some day, if enough small voices do the same, they’ll get it right, especially where women and secret heroes are concerned.)
This is from Joel Selvin’s obituary for Sheeley, (quoted in Real Life Rock, Greil Marcus, 2015, originally printed at Salon.com June 10, 2002):
“Although Sheeley lived 42 more years, she never got over Eddie,” writes Selvin, author of “Ricky Nelson: Idol for a Generation” and the unforgiving “Summer of Love.” “She was never able to stay with another man for long. Cochran loomed over her life. She will be buried in a plot next to him.”
“‘Poor Little Fool’ provided a modest annual stipend,” Selvin concluded. “She lived quietly with her grown son, across the street from her sister. She entertained visitors with hilarious anecdotes and reminiscences, peppered with sly humor and innuendo. Sheeley was the original Riot Grrrl, even if those in her debt never knew. One young music business secretary sighed to Sheeley about Cochran’s good looks a few years ago. ‘Honey,’ Sheeley said, ‘you should have seen him when he was breathing.’”
(“Somethin’ Else” was co-written by Sheeley and Bob Cochran, Eddie’s brother. I’ll have a good deal more to say about her ability to write from a rather different, specifically male, perspective in an upcoming post.)
(**In the Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building, song-mill sense, and I’ll just add that Sheeley and DeShannon did so as true free-lancers, without that kind of support system.)
[NOTE: This life-affirming post was in lieu of a negativity-fueled rant I had practically written in my head concerning the crit-illuminati wetting themselves celebrating the new Star Wars’ movie’s “diversity” because they’ve added Stepin Fetchit and Katniss Everdeen to the franchise. I don’t want anybody coming around here trying to collect any Pollyanna dues from me for at least a year.]
I haven’t done any hard statistics on this, but the vast majority of my movie-watching these days is revisiting movies I’ve seen before and a fair amount is revisiting movies I’ve seen many times.
This habit has grown over the last ten to fifteen years and intensified a bit in the last year or so after I suspended (and ultimately disconnected) my television service. I might go a month without seeing anything new and I now tend to treat movies like music, so watching favorites is more like listening to familiar albums than, say, re-reading a novel.
Like albums, movies tend to draw me back for certain very particular reasons–the parts I never get tired of. Hence, the “why I watch” bit. I’m offering this up as a snapshot of the kind of thing I engage with and very rarely write about. And if I very rarely write about this stuff it isn’t because it’s not worth writing about, it’s just because there isn’t enough time in the world….So, for fun, in reverse order, ten days, ten movies:
Dec. 8–Scaramouche (1952, George Sidney, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Eleanor Parker; for the greatest sword fight in movie history; and for one of the sweetest and bitterest final scenes. Besides, it was my birthday (very early hours). I was also impressed this time around by the scenes in the National Assembly, which present the real fight boiling underneath the burgeoning French Revolution as one between the aristocrats and the wannabes. A timeless theme if ever there was one and hardly relegated to the French (let alone the Hollywood version of the French), though they’ve certainly made an art form of it.
Dec. 6–Life of Crime (2014, Daniel Schechter, 2nd Viewing)
For the scenery; for the measured and reasonably complex view of both Native American politics and the White Man’s code of military honor; for some fine action scenes involving canoes, of which there can never be enough;and for the memories of happy days a good friend and I spent honing our “It-ain’t-really-a-western-unless-Shelley-Winters-or-Joan-Blondell-shows-up” theory, which, for those of us born within a certain time span, has turned out to be surprisingly durable.
Dec. 5–Wagonmaster aka Wagon Master (1950, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)
For a cast that, even within the context of John Ford’s oeuvre, reminds me remarkably, almost painfully, of the vanished people I grew up among (and no, they weren’t Mormons). That, plus all the usual reasons for watching any of Ford’s numerous masterworks. To take just one such: The long, gliding scene that begins with Joanne Dru’s showgirl turning down an invitation, offered at a “squaw dance,” by one of the outlaw band who have hitched a ride with the Mormon wagon train, and ends with the man being tied to a wagon wheel and whipped by the Mormons while the stoic Navajo elders look on. I’d have to revisit my Shakespeare to be sure, but it might be the most remarkable piece of compressed narrative that exists in any form.
Dec. 4–The War Wagon (1967, Burt Kennedy, Umpteenth Viewing, though the first in a very long while)
For the memories; for “Mine was taller.”; and for Kirk Douglas finding all those different ways to jump on horses from every conceivable angle without, so far as I could tell, mangling his manhood!.
Dec. 2–7 Men From Now (1956, Budd Boetticher, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Gail Russell; for Lee Marvin (“I was wrong Clete. He wasn’t half a man.”); for Randolph Scott’s finely wrought study in stoicism; and for the peerless storytelling, delivered with haiku-level perfection.
Dec. 1–Star Wars (1977, George Lucas, Umpteenth Viewing)
Just gettin’ ready.
Nov. 30–Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Rick and Ilsa and Frenchie. And to hear Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By.” What, there are other reasons? Sure, but who needs ’em.
Nov. 29–An American In Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Leslie Caron, dancing or not, and for the glories of the vanished studio system.
Nov. 28–The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Hayley Mills, decked in denim; for more deathless lines than I ever found in a classic screwball (“Tommy, if you dare shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!”); for the evocation of every Florida kid’s dream-life; for “Here’s one they won’t get. Here’s one for freedom.”; and for a chance to tell the lingering shade of that lucky little so-and-so, Jimmy MacArthur, who got out of the last frame with Hayley once and Janet Munro twice: “I ain’t sorry you’re dead!” and half-hope he won’t be able to decide whether I’m kidding. Oh, yeah, and: “Of Catfish Key….Da-h-h-ling.”
(NOTE: I’ll be posting the final part of my Elvis Crossover series within the next few weeks. I set it aside to finish this following post in time for the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ death. I’m traveling the rest of this week and I’ll be swamped with working on some serious home improvements for the next several weeks when I get back. I definitely plan to keep posting but it may be a little lighter than usual. In the meantime…..Here’s a personal reminiscence.)
It was August and, for some reason, I wasn’t working. So it wasn’t a normal day in that regard.
Most summer days in those years, my dad and I were on a paint job somewhere. Most summer days we had to be working, because that was when we made the bulk of the money we lived on the rest of the year while he was attending bible college, training for what turned out to be a career as a missionary, though at that moment, we all still assumed–improbably if not foolishly–that he could somehow turn into what our part of the world calls a pastor.
The really big news of the day at my house was that we were going to see Star Wars.
By “we” I mean all of us. Myself, both of my parents, my nephew and his new wife who lived a few miles down the road.
So it was odd that way, too.
My family did not go to movies. We certainly did not go to science fiction movies on Tuesday evenings.
I was sixteen and the only prior occasions I can remember going to a movie with both of my parents were a screening of Gone With the Wind when I was about five years old and a Disney double-feature (The Gnome-Mobile and Rascal) when I was maybe eight or nine.
That’s how much we didn’t go to the movies.
The only science fiction movie I had ever seen was 2001: Space Odyssey (my brother took me and ended up with the privilege of explaining the ending to my eight-year-old self after we missed the early show and I fell asleep during the late one–amazingly, we are still close).
That’s how much we didn’t go to science fiction movies.
Heck, I’m not even gonna try to fathom that.
Star Wars must have been a very, very big deal. Much bigger, frankly, than I remember.
In any case, at my house, it was already a strange, edgy, anticipatory sort of day.
Some time in the afternoon, I did what I always did on summer afternoons when I wasn’t working. I went in the back yard behind the scuppernong arbor and pitched a football around or shot baskets. I can’t pretend to recall which, but I do remember walking up to the house from the back and deciding to go on to the general store across the street to get what I always got–a Heath ice cream bar and a Nehi grape.
Was it two o’clock? Three? Later?
I seem to remember shadows, but that could be the mind playing tricks–calling up some more normal day when I couldn’t possibly have been throwing a football or shooting baskets before seven o’clock.
If the shadows weren’t really there, laying across my face and shoulders, they fell soon enough on the memory.
When we moved to North Florida in 1974, the general store was called Hudson’s, after the man who owned it and who also rented us his mother’s previously unavailable house at a ridiculously low rate when my father–called to full-time pursuit of the ministry at a moment inconveniently close to the beginning of the school year back in seventy-four–was unable to find anything else remotely affordable in the entire area.
Things like that happen when you are truly called. Things like that are meant to happen–at least that’s what you keep telling yourself during all those subsequent moments of horrendous, soul-eating doubt.
The man who owned the store and our house had decided (a year or so after we moved there), to sell the store, though, thankfully, he kept the house, which he had promised we could live in at that ridiculously low rate for as long as it took my father to complete his schooling.
The big, unsettling event that occurred after he sold the store was that the new owners decided to keep it open on Sunday.
Trust me, Mr. Hudson never would have sold it to anybody who would do a thing like that. Not if he had known. When he couldn’t talk them out of the new policy himself, he went to the pastor of his wife’s church, which was also our church (though, oddly, not his–he was a Methodist who insisted on staying a Methodist and his wife was a Baptist who insisted on staying a Baptist, which, in our part of the world, is what we call a mixed marriage). That led to our pastor “having a talk” with the new owners, which left them no longer interested in attending any church at all, and even less interested in closing on Sundays.
Change comes, even to the sleepiest small towns.
Anyway, the owners had four kids and their youngest son Bobby–he was a little younger than me–was standing near the back of the store, grabbing some shade (suddenly, for this part, I don’t see shadows, just shade, which is an entirely different thing).
He said something like: “Hey, Elvis Presley just died.”
We exchanged smirks at that.
Another dead celeb. Rock star, which meant he had probably O.D.’d or drowned in his own vomit or something. Yeah, that must have been it. Couldn’t really picture Elvis Presley in a plane crash. Plane crashes were kind of cool. However Elvis had died, I think me and Bobby were pretty sure it hadn’t been any way cool.
So I said something like: “Wow. How did it happen?”
And he shrugged and said something like: “I don’t know….I never did care much for him personally.”
And then I shrugged and said something like: “Me neither.”
Then I went on inside the store where it was a little cooler and some older men were talking to Bobby’s dad, wondering how it might have happened and Bobby’s dad said: “Wine, women and song.” (Not something like it–those were his exact words. Or so my memory tells me.)
And the other men who were standing around all nodded along in agreement.
I bought my ice cream bar and my Nehi and headed back out. Nobody else asked me what I thought about it.
If they had, I would have probably said something like: “Well, I never cared much for him personally.”
It was true. I didn’t. Not that moment or any moment prior.
I have no idea what Bobby was into, musically speaking. KISS probably or Lynyrd Skynyrd (now there was a tragedy, not to mention some rock stars who knew the proper way to die!) I myself was into John Denver and folk music, though I was also getting a handle on the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys just about then. All of whom were way less cool than Elvis, at least where I lived.
(I mean, if I had possessed even a little respect for anybody else’s knowledge of what was really important, I probably would have been looking for a chance to say something like, “Well at least it wasn’t Brian Wilson!” In those days, the “O.D.’d in the bathroom” news was expected to deliver up the head Beach Boy any moment. Turns out he’s still here and the “drowned in the Pacific Ocean” and “died of cancer” news delivered up his brothers instead. Take any bet you want. Just remember that time is a master at perverting even the surest odds.)
I guess all of this is a way of saying I had my own idea of what was important, just like most sixteen-year-old know-it-alls.
My head didn’t have space for Elvis Presley. He was my mother’s idea of important and my Memphis-born nephew’s idea of important and a lot of other people’s idea of important.
Poor lost souls.
It was kind of sad, really, that they were so far beyond educating.
I would have helped them if I could.
* * * *
By the time I got back to the house, walking through what I now swear were the long shadows of evening again, I had weighed the situation a bit and realized I should not be too callous or casual about breaking the news to my mother. Another dead celeb for me–though I was impressed that everybody was talking about it. A big deal, though, for her.
Maybe a little biography is in order.
My mother was born in 1919, in North Carolina (born Bessemer City, moved to Salisbury soon after). She went to work in a towel factory when she was sixteen to help support her parents (a fact I learned from others while she was alive) and to allow an older brother to attend seminary (a fact I learned only after she died–it wasn’t the sort of thing one ever learned from her).
When I was about eight years old, a doctor held up an X-ray of her lungs in front of me and said that the brown spots were places that didn’t work any more. One lung–I don’t remember which–wasn’t really spotted. It was just brown. She had about half of the other one left–her reward for twenty years of faithfully breathing unregulated lint and cotton dust at the factory and for having me too late in life.
I learned all that from other people too. That definitely was not the sort of thing you ever learned from her.
My mother had a hard, hard life. My mother did not complain.
She knew fear but she did not know bitterness. That was just how she was–or how she made herself to be.
She did occasionally–only occasionally–tell stories about her childhood.
Stories about delivering food baskets with her minister father to black and white families alike who were even more impoverished than her own. Stories of leaping from the top of an abandoned rail car in Salisbury’s old train yard in an attempt to fly (one purple wing, one pink wing, one hard fall). Stories about getting up early enough on school mornings in the winter that she could stop and join the early dawn singing sessions with the hoboes who haunted the lines in the twenties, scrounging desperately for work long before the rest of the world got the news of the Great Depression. (I asked her once if she thought she might have sung with Jimmie Rodgers and she said, “Well, if he was through that part of North Carolina, I probably did.” My research tells me he wasn’t, but her answer always made the country seem smaller and friendlier and better somehow.) Stories of instinctively shucking her brand new shoes so she could enter a sidewalk Charleston contest, then running away and leaving her shoes–and the first prize–behind when she won because she knew she was in the worst kind of trouble if her parents found out (a sister snuck back and retrieved the shoes–no idea what happened to the prize).
Like I said.
Happy stories. Always with a laugh or a shake of the head.
And, about childhood, she told one–only one–unhappy story.
Some time around the age of twelve or thirteen, she was allowed to go into downtown Salisbury by herself and do some shopping. She rode the bus. She bought a few things and so had bags to carry home with her.
Then, hauling the bags the best she could, she got on the bus to go home.
There were no empty seats in the front. There were plenty of empty seats in the back. Only one black woman sitting there alone. No one else around.
So my mother, exhausted, happily took her bags to the back of the bus and plopped down on an empty seat.
At which point the lone black woman immediately leaned over and began hissing under her breath.
“Not yo’ seat,” she said. “Not yo’ seat!”
My mother, alone on the city bus for the first time, accustomed to getting along fine with black people, didn’t know what she meant.
She therefore did not know why a man detached himself from one of the front seats and came towards her and was thus surprised when he said something like:
“Here, you take my seat.”
And, not seeing the point of it all and having been raised on Christian politeness, she said something like:
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m fine right here.”
At which point he said in an exceedingly cold voice (the exact words if I’m remembering correctly–and I think I am–and if she was remembering correctly–and she almost certainly was):
“Young lady you get up there in that seat right now!”
Raised to respect and obey her elders, my mother moved–right on into what our part of the world used to call responsible adulthood. Right on into her first real experience with shame.
Just to make sure she behaved–and got the point–the man came and stood next to her until it was time for her to get off. The surest sign that she bore watching.
Coincidence or not, during all the years I knew her decades later, there were no more childhood stories after that. Anecdotes maybe, memories maybe, shards maybe, but the stories ended on that city bus in Salisbury, swallowed up by good old Jim Crow.
So, forty-five years later, on August 16, 1977, when I came up the steps of the back porch of our rented house in the Florida Panhandle, my mother had three children and a bunch of grandchildren, all of whom she loved better than herself and a flawed vessel of a second husband trying to be a preacher and half a lung to breathe with and a lifetime with the burden and privilege of being what our part of the world calls a pillar of the community (any community she lived in, she was a pillar–which, in our part of the world, really does mean the one everyone else leans on and leans on and keeps leaning on, half-a-lung or not) and memories of a happy childhood that was back there somewhere behind a curtain that fell down the first time she rode a bus by herself.
* * * *
All that, plus one other completely anomalous not-from-childhood happy story.
That was the story of going to see Elvis Presley at the Carolina Theater in Charlotte in 1956.
You couldn’t hear him, she always said.
It took three hours to get him from the hotel to the stage, she always said.
I thought those girls down front were going to tear his clothes off, she always said.
It was something to see, she always said.
Well, there was nobody like him, she always said.
So in those forty-five years, there was one happy story that wasn’t tucked behind that curtain–one moment when the world had seemed pure again.
Without being terribly self-conscious about all of that–without having thought it through to any appreciable degree, certainly without knowing that a year later a car with two young black men in it would come hot-rodding around the corner, take out the wire fence I always walked past going to and from the general store and screech away while Mr. Hudson ran screaming helplessly after them, finally giving up and trudging back to our yard and giving my father (by then well-known to be on his way to a missionary career in helping the less fortunate) a brief, angry lecture on the evil and hopeless stupidity of being a nigger-lover, something my father was not, in fact, ever so easily mistaken for when he was not under the very direct influence of Jesus or my mother–I had a sudden sense that what I was about to tell her might not be just another case of bad news.
* * * *
I could have thought about it a whole lot more and still not been prepared for her reaction.
Understand we had no Elvis records. My mother wasn’t into buying records. I doubt she would have been even if we had the money.
I also doubt she had ever been to one of his movies. If she had, she never talked about it.
I don’t know if she watched him on television in the fifties, but I can say with certainty she did not see the great 68 Comeback Special or the famous concert from Hawaii via world-wide satellite. I can say with certainty she did not see those monumental events because those particular years were not among the handful when we possessed a working television.
She didn’t even make much habit of listening to the radio.
So whatever my mother had going on with Elvis it wasn’t what I imagined most people having.
Which probably just shows the limits of my world-weary imagination at sixteen.
In any case, there I was, standing in the doorway that led from the back porch to the kitchen, with my Heath ice cream bar and my Nehi grape, and there she was, standing next to the counter by the sink with a dish-rag in her hand, finishing or starting something, I can’t remember what.
And I was saying something like: “I just heard Elvis Presley died.”
I could have told her one of my sisters just died–or one of them could have told her that I just died–and the reaction couldn’t have been much stronger.
If I hadn’t been standing next to that counter and had it to hold onto, she always said later, I would have dropped straight to the floor.
I was there. I was the one who ran across the kitchen floor to make sure she didn’t keel over.
So I’m the one who can testify to that.
* * * *
When a minute or two had passed, it became evident that I couldn’t answer any of her very basic questions: Not how. Not when (not exactly anyway). Not where.
Certainly not why. (Little did I know how important the “why” was–how much it was destined to become an eternally unanswerable question, like the nature of existence and what lies beyond the edge of the universe.)
So finally she said: “Let’s turn on the radio.”
We didn’t have much of a radio. One of those little jobs with a clock on it that didn’t take up too much space on the card table we used for a breakfast nook.
She turned it on and had we not already heard the news, it would have been easy enough to guess something was up because we were in the first hour or so of about seven straight days when Elvis took over the South in a way that he couldn’t possibly have done when he was alive–not even in the fifties. Because even in the fifties, I doubt he was on every station–Top 40, country, classic rock, easy listening–all day long for days on end.
Let me just say that I only attended anywhere closely to those first couple of hours.
Things blurred. I’m sure I ate my ice cream bar and drank my Nehi, but I can’t say I remember doing it.
I do remember sitting at the dining room table, vacillating between my inward self, trying to take it all in, and my outward self, pretending to ignore the whole affair.
Somewhere in there, my nephew heard the news and called my mother and they traded grief and shock and I got on the phone for a little bit and asked him–casually, off-handedly, because I was sure I knew the answer–if he was still going to see Star Wars with us that night.
And he said something like:
“Naw man…I think I’m gonna stay around here and see if I can figure out what happened.”
Weirdly enough, when he said it, I was surprised–not so much at him as at myself for not having seen it coming.
Because, somewhere in there, some sort of understanding had dawned. Not the understanding that my nephew, who saw more movies than a paid critic, never would see Star Wars. That would have been too much to expect of myself.
But I might have tripped along just fast enough to have guessed beforehand that he wasn’t going to the movies that evening–that he wasn’t my mother, who had known too much grief in her life to risk dwelling on it and who also probably didn’t want to disappoint me (sixteen-year-old me, who was not exactly devastated by the news of the day and very assuredly did not go traipsing off to the movies without adult supervision).
So what had changed? Why was I suddenly prone to expecting better of myself?
Well, sitting there at the dining room table, one room removed from the radio and my mother’s strange reaction, I kept hearing two things.
First I heard the shock and grief that was coming from the voices on the radio. From people calling in to be sure (there wasn’t much in the way of sharing memories at that point–it was all about “what happened?”). But from the professionals, too. From smart aleck dee-jays who played Saturday Night Live clips on other days and cracked Hitler jokes (because that was edgy, that was controversial, that was how you let people know you were with it–kind of like prison-rape and mass murder jokes now) and offered up catch-phrases like, “If you’re not a Head, you’re behind!” for all the stoners to giggle at.
And there were national voices, too–familiar even to those of us with little exposure to mass media which maybe says something about how hard it was, even then, to not be exposed–starting to intone during the breaks, delivering the expected dose of gravitas and maybe sounding just a little surprised themselves at just what a big “where were you when it happened” deal this was turning out to be.
Just in case I hadn’t been duly impressed by all that, there was even one moment that actually stuck with me specifically and permanently, when a clipped, very British voice from something called the BBC (I’m only half-sure I even knew what that was at the time), said something very like, “We will be dedicating the entire three hours of the late show to his memory.”
It all made for an interesting mosaic and it was one thing that definitely impressed me.
And then, of course, there was the other thing.
Somewhere in all the building hoopla and sturm und drang I heard the music.
Not all of it. Not even close. There were songs I knew, more or less, and songs I didn’t know. There were snatches here and there that sounded not half-bad. Maybe a couple I even liked. (Heck, if it came down to it, I had kind of liked Elvis’ last two singles, “Moody Blue” and “Way Down,” which is roughly how I would feel about them ever-afterward, the main difference being that ever-afterward I was willing to admit it.)
Why was I suddenly so willing to admit things I hadn’t admitted before?
Because I was ever so slightly changed by one song in particular.
It happened that the song was “Kentucky Rain,” which may or may not have changed me much sooner if I had ever chanced to hear it some time before August 16, 1977.
Or may not have changed me at all, if I had heard it a day later.
Who knows? That’s the funny thing about experience. Each thing that happens either sinks in or bounces off and each thing happens exactly when it happens and not some other time. Whether it or you would have been different if the angles had been slightly altered goes off into an alternative universe called The Unknown.
No sense going crazy over it.
Back in The Known, what happened on August 16, 1977, is that I heard Elvis Presley singing a song called “Kentucky Rain” on my family’s cheap, tinny radio and the thunder rolled and the lightning struck and I suddenly knew a few things.
I knew Elvis Presley had been an actual human being and I knew my inability to perceive this prior to that moment said something unpleasant about me (me, who had been very specifically and steadfastly raised to know better) and something horrible about the state of the world.
I knew–rather suddenly–that the world could put you in a box–could make you throw up defenses designed to block out the very thing you should be letting in.
All of that I sort of articulated on the spot.
All of that made me think something like: Jesus, he was a real guy.
What I also knew, but did not articulate, is that nobody who sang like that was really only singing a lyric–some song about trying to track down a woman who left him in the cold Kentucky rain. I caught the meaning under the meaning if you get my meaning.
And once I knew Elvis was a real guy, I also knew I had to watch out for him.
Hell, I grew up in the American South in the sixties and seventies.
I already knew he was a force of nature.
Realizing he was also–before, beyond, and along-side his force-of-nature-ness–a human being like anybody else (and not just any human being like anybody else but a human being like anybody else who could convey the meaning under a meaning, who could reach as deep as meaning required and then reach just a little bit deeper–one of those just-like-anybody-else human beings) just made the whole thing more of a whirlwind than it was already bound to be.
I was embittered by the whole experience and I was shocked and I was shamed.
More than that, I was the best and worst thing you can be at know-it-all sixteen.
I was humbled.
As ye do unto these, the least of my brethren, I had been raised to believe and still have no cause to doubt, so ye do unto me.
All I had ever done to Elvis Presley was write him out of the human race.
On the day he died, he wrote himself back in.
I hardly knew what it all meant just then. Hard to blame me for being a little slow, really, what with my mother still breaking into crying jags and starting to make noises (noises that would continue, off and on, until those brown lungs and the hell they brought finally put her in the grave a decade later) about knowing–knowing!–that she should have tried to reach him somehow. That if only she had written that letter God put it in her heart to write, it might somehow have reached him, and, more to the point, somehow also have made all the difference (and my research into Elvis himself, plus all the common sense in the world, tells me otherwise, but, then again, my research into other people has brought me across more than one statement from some famous person or other who didn’t know Elvis any better than my mother did, which re-stated her theme with eerie precision). All that, plus bringing my father up to speed when he got home and making the momentous family decision that yes, we would still go and see Star Wars!
Lot going on there, so, no, I don’t blame myself for not knowing what it all meant.
But I’m a little bit satisfied that I knew this much: I knew if Elvis (ELVIS!) could suddenly reach me–could write himself straight back into the human race on the day he died when I had done such a thorough job of writing him out–then I had to be ready for anything.
I like to think I have been.
I like to think I learned my lesson.
* * * *
So, as you may have guessed, on the night Elvis died, we went to see Star Wars and, as you may not have guessed, my mother loved it. Even my father was a little bit impressed–or maybe just relieved that my mother had found an escape from what even he (no Elvis fan to say the least and possessed of little-to-no ability to understand the person next to him, though he did have an uncanny knack for reaching strangers, proving God was not quite the fool some thought when He placed that call I referred to earlier) knew was real pain.
I loved Star Wars, too. A little for my mother’s reasons, a little for my father’s reasons, a lot for my own reasons. That’s maybe the point of going to movies together, though life would teach me the things we did together much more often–travel, fight, work, pray, hang together somehow–had a far greater value.
Just anecdotally, when we were leaving the movie theater in Dothan, Alabama, the kids who had sat down front came swarming past us in droves, hooking up with searching parents. The ritual aftermath of any family movie that pulls a crowd I guess.
I didn’t think much about it until my mother smiled down at a black kid who had smiled back while he was apologizing for bumping into her leg.
Then, looking after him, she said: It’s so nice we can all sit together. Thank the lord they don’t have to sit in the balcony anymore.
Even in our part of the world.
Once we got back in the car–back in the real world–we turned on the radio.
By then, I had changed just enough not to be at all surprised to find Elvis was still playing wall-to-wall on every station.
* * * *
In the days and weeks and, eventually, months that followed, I set off on a comic journey, seeking a forty-five (I was all about forty-fives in those days) with “Kentucky Rain” on it.
Never found it.
Given what you could find in those days and weeks and even months–pretty much every single Elvis had ever released, and boy were there a lot of them, taking up their own section in every record store–it would have been logical to assume this was mathematically impossible.
Having been raised in a fatalistic, Calvinist world, I did not concern myself with logic or assumptions or mathematics.
I knew the journey was more important than the destination.
Eventually (along about the Christmas of seventy-eight I think) I settled for using a little of my summer money to buy my mother a copy of Elvis’ 50 Worldwide Gold Hits, Volume 1 as a present.
It was expensive to the point of luxury, but it did have “Kentucky Rain.”
Believe me, I meant the present for her. Believe me, I listened to it a lot more than she did. Believe me, listening to all those records at once made me a fan and sent me on other journeys, some of which haven’t reached their end.
My mother didn’t really mind.
She wasn’t a record collector.
She was a performer. A hellaciously gifted performer, even with half a lung. Hellaciously gifted as in Judy Garland gifted, Barbra Streisand gifted. That ilk gifted.
I know, I know. Every community in the world has one of those. And every community thinks that just because every other community has one, too, it doesn’t mean theirs isn’t the one who really is all that! To which all I can say is I don’t know, because how can you? I mean how can you know, when it’s not just your community but your mother?
Okay, I kinda, sorta know.
I kinda, sorta know because my mother was a fan as much as she was a performer and when you’ve been in as many auditoriums as I have and spent your entire childhood watching the local talent week-in and week out and happened to notice that one person could hold a room like no one else then you kinda, sorta know that this person really is the one who was all that–even if that person is from your community and happens to be your mother.
If you move away from a community and the letters keep coming for years afterwards–often as not from people we had known less than intimately–then the knowing gets kinda, sorta reinforced.
At some point you kinda, sorta know that just because it was your mother, doesn’t mean it was only your imagination.
To tell the truth, I think she saw Elvis as a lot of things, but one thing she probably saw him as that was kinda, sorta unusual, was as a sort of peer. Somebody else who could command the room. (What I knew she meant–not kinda, sorta, but exactly–a few years later, after those brown lungs had finally robbed her voice of its power and I played her a Jerry Butler record and–hearing someone whose timbre and phrasing were not remotely like hers–she closed her eyes and said, both wistfully and matter-of-factly, “I used to be able to sing like that.” LIke the very small circle of people who know that when it is time for them to sing, they will truly own the room. Any room.)
Or maybe I only know what I think. Because as much as we had Elvis in common after a certain point–after the point where pain and drugs (the kinds of drugs the doctors give you when they don’t know what else to do) made a lot of other things drop away–she never really said. At least not directly.
Mostly I guess what we had in common when it came to Elvis was what a lot of Elvis fans have in common. The certitude that he had sought–and found–the meaning under the meaning. The meaning that–often as not–comes leaking out when you seek and find that the very qualities the cognoscenti tend to call “gruesome” (Greil Marcus’ word) or a “monstrosity” (Robert Christgau’s word) have you in their grip and won’t let go.
I used to worry about that. I used to think it was my mission to enlighten-if-I-could the poor souls who didn’t have what it took to measure up against “How the Web Was Woven,” or “We Can Make the Morning,” or “Tomorrow Never Comes,” or whatever.
I don’t worry about it any more.
Heck, if you don’t get it, I figure that’s your problem, not mine. I’m sure there are a lot of things you would think a little less of me for not measuring up to.
The world changes, but it moves on, too.
Just before my mother moved on, she told me a couple of happy stories. There’s no sense trying to convey how much a happy story meant at that point, when she could hardly walk, hardly breathe, hardly see–let’s just say by then they were few and far between.
One day we were just talking–I’m not even sure about what–and she looked off in the distance and said something like: I skipped work to see him….I called in sick. That was the only time I ever did that.
She didn’t even say who “he” was. Didn’t have to.
Incidentally, in 1956, my mother was thirty-seven years old, with two kids.
So just in case she had never put paid to the notion that Elvis was strictly–or even primarily–for teeny-boppers before, she put paid to it then.
But there was one even better story and we definitely weren’t talking about Elvis then.
Same bed, same wistful, slightly vacated look. One last time back behind the curtain that fell on that city bus.
She was telling the old story about stopping off from school to harmonize with the hoboes in the train yard. How they sort of adopted her–looked forward to seeing her every morning. How she had to get up and leave the house early so she would have time to visit.
How they gave her coffee to drink and how it was still the best coffee she ever had.
How they taught her to hop trains.
I never heard that part before.
So I said something like: Hop trains?
And she said something like: Well, you know, once I got old enough. I’d run alongside and jump in one of the cars.
She had to be careful, she said. There was a point–once the train got up sufficient speed–after which you couldn’t jump off.
She told me what that point was, where it specifically was in the geography of Salisbury’s train track, though, if I took it in then–and I might not have, with time having stopped and all–I soon forgot it.
She emphasized that if you didn’t jump off right then, you were riding to the next town.
She told me it was always a long walk back….and that it was always worth it.
So I said something like: How come you never told me this before?
And she said something like: Oh, I never told too many people about that. I couldn’t live with myself if I gave somebody a crazy idea like that and they hurt themselves trying to do the same thing.
I can’t say I thought about it that day, but one day not too long after she passed away a few months later, I realized how lucky I was that she had lived long enough to tell me that one last happy story–and that it was, indeed, going to be the last one.
That I’d never know–not on this side anyway–how many stories she never got to tell.
The only comfort, then and now, is that I know she could have never told a better one.
And, in a way–a way which maybe I made up entirely out of my own head and maybe was the whole truth as she intended it and maybe was somewhere in between–it was the best story she told about Elvis.
Elvis resonated all over the world. His death was felt all over the world.
But there’s always something special about home and something about the South’s glorious and horrible history has made it resonate a little more than most places–has created its own glorioius, horrible sense of identity.
To be part of the working class South the day Elvis died was to feel like a hole had been blown through the world–a hole the rest of us were going to be forever left to deal with. Forever trying to fill one day and scurry away from the next.
It meant something, you see, that one of us–one who, like us, was born to jump off the train and walk back to town, where you worked in a field or a factory or a department store or drove a truck for the rest of your life–had hopped a car leaving town and ridden it all the way to the end of the track. Not just to fame and fortune–there were, after all, plenty who had done that–but to relevance.
It meant something that you could be born in a shotgun shack and die in a mansion and–somewhere along the way, and this is the crucial element–be able to tell the man to stick it, not because you were into what our part of the world calls showing your butt (the one sure way to get yourself talked about and also to make yourself fathomable, and, therefore, manageable in the macro-sense, however much of a ruckus you kick up on a given day), but because you were the one–the only one–who made the ground truly shake under the man’s feet.
Of all the ways Elvis mattered–and all the ways won’t be sorted out in the next hundred lifetimes–this was the way he mattered most.
Not just to us, of course. Not just to those of us who happen to belong in the group that can truly throw our arms around the one who made the ground shake under the man’s feet and say something like: Yeah, he was ours.