I remember waking up in a cold sweat, body shivering from head to toe. I ran into my parent’s bedroom drenched in anxiety and fear. As the legal guardians of all things supposedly logical and rationale, they told me to grow up and stop whining. My father even attempted a pre-intervention diagnosis, arguing that I was still suffering from a kind of preposterous post-traumatic stress after the pre-release shock oif finding a dead squirrel in the toilet (don’t ask - I’m 50 now and I still haven’t figured that one out). “No,” I shouted, my pre-pubescent diaphragm trying to press out the words, “it’s not that.” As I starred at them blankly, a wave of confused swept their faces. I could see it very clearly. They couldn’t.
My pathetic panic attack was over the prospect of…nuclear war? Terminal disease? The possible break-up of The Partridge Family? (Hey, what did you want - it’s the early ‘70s we’re talking about) No, I was flush with fear over my first day of Junior High (or Middle School, depending on where you are from), a concept so foreign and alien to me that I just couldn’t wrap my soon to be a Seventh Grader brain around it. Since kindergarten, I had attended an elementary school that was literally a block from my house. I could actually see the building from my bedroom window. Now, suddenly, the Summer of ‘73 was gone and I was being shuttled somewhere almost a mile away. Yes, it was close to my best friend’s house and many of my Edgewood classmates were coming along, but this was JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL, one step closer to the human grotesque clique chaos of the real deal.
In retrospect, the horror was more or less unwarranted. I struggled to fit in, found a niche (the funny kid a tad too obsessed with Walt Disney) and then settled in for the long haul. Classes were a little harder, a lot more diverse, and slightly impersonal. We took shop (?) and other subjects unusual and “grown-up.” We even had a more democratic lunch set-up, where classes got in line to get their food - with Seventh always pulling up the rear. It was during this hour of proposed nutrition that I learned many valuable lessons. First, never get the hot meal when you can’t quite make out the color of the meatloaf (gray? beige? a combination?). Second, a construction worker style lunch box is far more impressive than your Land of the Giants Thermos kit. And finally, there was much more to the movies than Sunday showings of Mysterious Island on WGN’s Family Classics with Frazier Thomas.
You read correctly. While I was already a major movie-buff-in-the-making by the time I hit grade seven, it was Barker Junior High’s weird ritual of showing actual Hollywood films during lunch that sold me on said artform. Each week, the school would select a title, chop it up into 30 minute bits, and then run it on the wall of the massive student gymnasium. For 50 cents, you could take your remaining Hostess treat or mini-bag of Fritos onto the polished wood floor, find a comfy place to flop, and sit back for a half hour of motion picture magic. For many, it was a time for clandestine acts under the guise of a darkened arena (hormones were raging, after all). But for me, it was an eye-opening introduction to a whole world of entertainment that I had, up until then, taken far too lightly.
I only remember a few of the many titles that they showed up - Bless the Beasts and the Children, McKenna’s Gold, the original, musical Doctor Doolitte, See No Evil, and perhaps most importantly, Wait Until Dark. I also have no memory as to whether or not these films were “censored” for our Junior High viewing pleasure. One thing’s for sure - there was no one sending permission slips home so that Mom and Dad could determine the artistic or ethical value of the narrative’s message and/or content. Nope - the school simply showed 30 minutes of a movie every day - Monday through Friday - and if you had the cash, you could come in and crash.
I consider the Barker noontime screenings to be seminal in my development as a film fan (and later, critic). I recall the moment when Gregory Peck saw a flash of golden light from the top of a distant mountain. The image of a frightened Mia Farrow cowering in a bathtub also remains buried in my cinematic subconscious. I can still sing most of “When I Look In Your Eyes”, and the misfits boys of Bless the Beasts really hit home, even today. But it’s the afterburner suspense of Dark that still haunts a very private place in my adult terrors. The experience of sitting with hundreds of my fellow teens, taking in the jittery delights of Terence Young’s Hitchcock like dread manipulation remains a benchmark of grand group think hysteria - similar to seeing Night of the Living Dead when I was nine. Just the thought of Alan Arkin’s hand reaching out for a blind Audrey Hepburn…
Nearly four decades removed, it all seems so surreal. Teachers today get grief for peddling the most minor Disney dreck on their unsuspecting charges, parents and professional bureaucrats constantly looking for a fight where none exists. While I know we saw other, lighter efforts, movies like Bless the Beasts and Wait Until Dark were pretty aggressive for the 12 to 13 year old brain and there were a few that fell along the wayside simply because a five day a week commitment to a movie was too scattered and serialized for an adolescent brain discovering the joys of maturation - namely, GIRLS! Still, sitting on those hard parquet floors, dimming lights giving way to a bright beam of visual wonderment, a true passion was born. It would be carried through my tenure in boarding school (where the joys of Harold and Maude and the letdown of the original King Kong first found form) and the remainder of educational undertaking (thank you, FSU student union!).
A few months later, I once again found myself covered in adrenaline-amped sweat, fear filling my already fevered brain. But this time, I didn’t dare run in to tell my parents. Over the course of the previous months, ever since discovering the Barker Junior High Lunchtime Movie, I was heading off to our local Mall to take in the current commercial fare. Westworld, Soylent Green, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (in rerelease) all crossed my path, a whole new world of aesthetic possibilities opening up for my once sheltered psyche. I had become such an assured movie buff that I decided to sneak into a showing of the latest “hot topic ticket,” a film that caused the adjoining theaters to stink of vomit from time to time. Thanks to those midday movie repasts, I had gotten up the courage to see The Exorcist. Thus another in what would become a string of sleepless nights. Lesson learned, I guess.