[1 May 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I’ve seen a lot of movies. Way too many. Far too many for my own good, actually. Ever since I was able to grab my bike and ride the 6.3 miles to the stand alone theater near the Marquette Mall in Michigan City, Indiana, I’ve been a certified cinema fiend. It really didn’t matter what was showing, if I could get in, I would go. The personnel at this place were really flexible. By the time I was 10 (1971), I could more or less walk into any PG (or then GP) title that I wanted and no one batted an eye. I did look old for my age, coming in at around five feet before my teens, but I still marvel at some of the movies I managed to see. Heck, I even snuck into The Exorcist when it opened in our area. Of course, I didn’t sleep for three weeks afterward.
I guess I feel lucky for the era I grew up in. There’s no reason to go into detail. Enough people have waxed poetic about it. The ‘70s were the beginning and best part of the post-modern era, sensational filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas (just to mention the mainstream titans) delivering definitive statements of the medium as art. Naturally, an 11-year-old isn’t really thinking about how The Godfather turned the mafia into a manifestation of myth. I was too busy wrapping my brain around how that horse head got in the bed (and let’s not mention Moe Green’s eye, shall we?). You could feel the kinetic energy in the air. Film was important again, and I had a middle-row seat at its weekly relevance.
Like most old-school cinephiles, it was the summer that finally sold me on what was rapidly becoming an addiction. Sitting in the massive 800-seat structure, I and several hundred of my fellow film fiends waiting to see how Universal would realize the logistical limits of Peter Benchley’s killer shark potboiler, we became part of history. While Jaws would jockey for the season’s celebrated starting point (Tom Laughlin and his Trial of Billy Jack would argue that fact), it was clear that the rapid evolution of the medium mandated a new way of getting it to the people. At first, it was the summer. Then came the VCR and home theaters. Today, both battle each other (with DVD stepping in for the old analog army) for bottom line supremacy.
Of course, what any movie maven brings with them, long after the last credit has rolled and the film crew comes in to clean, are the memories—the moments that keep a movie fresh in our minds even as many more file in to find storage space. When I look back at my 40 years at the Cineplex, I recall hundreds of singular scenes or sequences, characters whose wisdom (or wit) I keep with me all these years later. With a rousing, return to form blockbuster called Iron Man opening up the 2008 popcorn parade on 2 May, perhaps a little wistful backwards glancing is in order. Here, in chronological order, from 1968 to 2007, are a few of the recollections I hold from all these years of moviegoing. Some of the choices are obvious, some are rather obscure. But they all manage to instantly put me back in my seat, eyes wide open as that magic light from the far off back row painted indelible images on a giant white screen.
Oh yeah, don’t argue over the starting date. Like I said, I started going to the movies when I was seven… which occurred in 1968… which was 40 years ago.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The final shot, where our hero Taylor, played brilliantly by the late Charlton Heston, learns his fate, and that of his home planet. Seen at a drive-in with a bunch of older kids who teased that this was indeed our future.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The dream sequence where the Devil shows up with lovin’ on his mind. Another strike for the perverting influence of the passion pit.
Peter Pan (1969, Disney re-release)
The discovery of 2D animation on the big screen, Disney’s way with a classic fairytale, and the sensational amount of fun that could be had when both are delivered expertly. Began my lifelong fascination with the art form.
Robert Morse’s unusual star presence, and how it failed to save this film. I was left with the lingering realization of how sad and rather surreal the House of Mouse’s live action efforts were becoming post Mary Poppins.
Killer rats are cool, especially when they’re chomping on Ernest Borgnine.
Killer rats are lame, especially when a wussy child star is serenading them. Ew!
Soylent Green (1973)
Heston is back, this time delivering the ultimate verbal denouement. Anyone care for a lovely emerald colored cracker?
That’s Entertainment (1974)
Watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers work their elegant footwork magic. Heck, discovering that MGM made musicals! (I was only 13, remember).
Chrissie’s ill-advised skinny dip, and the horror that followed. This movie still represents for me that rare moment when a new directorial voice walked into the room and announced that it was taking no prisoners. Spielberg would own the medium for the next three decades.
Silent Movie (1976)
Mel Brooks trying for some old school slapstick, and succeeding when he, along with costars Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise run into a Coke machine with a mind of its own.
The Omen (1976)
David Warner gets a little ‘off the top’ when he defies the mangoat and makes for the sacrificial devil child-killing daggers.
The massive subwoofer that sat at the front of the theater, supposedly offering the latest technological advance—Sensurround. Nothing more than cinematic hip-hop 20 years too soon.
Star Wars (1977)
Waiting in line with hundreds of other people for over seven hours just to learn that all the showings were sold out. Oh yeah, the movie was great too.
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
Paul Nicholas stealing the entire film from his lame multi-platinum co-stars during a definitive take on The Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money”.
Animal House (1978)
The frat boys shouting epithets under their cleverly cough-addled voices. Imitated by yours truly endlessly for the next two years in situations both inappropriate and totally apropos.
Making an offhand comment during the Ash attack scene, and having one of my high school teachers turn around and tell me to “shush”.
Life of Brian (1979)
Making my way through a group of angry hecklers, most of them fervent fundamentalists, as they claimed I was condemning my eternal soul by paying to witness Python’s blatant blasphemy.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Luke loses a hand, and gains a relative. My friends and I actually argued that it couldn’t be true, that George Lucas was having a laugh. Two decades later, the prequels joke would be on us.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
A tie: Dan Aykroyd making toast with a hanger and a hot plate, and John Belushi whipping off his shades to give Carrie Fisher the eye… and the eyebrow.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
God makes mincemeat out of a bunch of Nazis. Time to shrivel, melt, and explode.
Escape from New York (1981)
Who knew Kurt Russell could be this cool!
E. T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982)
Forgetting all the pre-release hype about the man-made nature the title creature, and believing in every facet of its physical effects perfection.
The Road Warrior (1982)
Car chases come of age as an Australian auteur puts his imprint on the action epic for the next few years.
Corpses come rising out of a swimming pool-in-process. Kind of kills a weekend in your neighbor’s backyard, doesn’t it?
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
The spider head emerges, and a character reacts in expletive laden amazement… and so does the audience.
The Return of the Jedi (1983)
It’s the Care Bears to the rescue!
Trading Places (1983)
Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy put the Duke Brothers in the poorhouse. Someone still needs to explain to me how.
Waiting 90 minutes to see the villainous Beast, and then realizing he/it is nothing more than a soft-focus monster mask with a vocoder and bad teeth.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Monkey brains! Delicious!
Watching the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man waddle up a Manhattan street, his happy demeanor hiding an apocalyptic sense of doom.
Our bright green meanies settle in for a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves… and turn it into a sing-a-long.
The Goonies (1985)
The Fratellis learn that Chunk is an excellent liar.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Desperate to find Francis Buxton, his meaty manchild nemesis, Pee Wee takes on butler Professor Toru Tanaka in a front entrance battle of wits. “Where are they hosing him down?”
As she prepares to wage war against one incredibly pissed-off Queen, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley takes a deep breath, and gets herself ready.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
It’s whacked out wire fu for a generation completely unprepared for its complexities… and Kurt Russell is a badass once again.
The Fly (1986)
Brundlefly asks to be put out of ‘its’ misery.
A villain falls into a vat of industrial waste, and winds up giving a new definition to the term “splatter”.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
As the red curtain draws (and the familiar Warner Brothers bumper music arrives), we are transported into a realm of pen and ink dreams—Toontown, in all its weird, wonderful glory.
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
John Cleese does a seductive striptease—only to reveal his stiff upper… lip (and then some) to some unsuspecting visitors.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
River Phoenix’s portrayal of the iconic hero as a young man… and the flights of fancy over how he would carry on the Jones’ mantle.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Da Mayor warns Mookie to strive for the title goal—and our hero has got it, and is gone.
The Abyss (1989)
Standing at the edge of a Cayman Trough, Ed Harris’ Bud Brigman contemplates his upcoming ‘suicide’ mission—and then takes the plunge anyway.
Total Recall (1990)
The Martian atmosphere machine comes croaking to life.
Dick Tracy (1990)
Warren Beatty delivers one of the most stunning cinematographic achievements ever… and then forgets to include a story.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The T-1000 gets a hole blown open in its face…and it doesn’t seem to care.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
That symbolic plunge into the canyon.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The initial money shot, when our consultants and scientists come across a real live (CGI) brachiosaurus, snacking on a treetop.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Our hero flashes the peace sign as the Byrds sing “Turn, Turn, Turn”.
True Lies (1994)
As our married couple kiss, an atomic bomb goes off in the background.
“That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”
The Frighteners (1996)
Making the simultaneous discovery that Peter Jackson is an amazingly accomplished director of mainstream fare, and witnessing the unbridled acting brilliance of Jeffrey Combs as a crazed FBI agent.
Independence Day (1996)
Jeff Goldblum looks up from his laptop with a rather sickening statement: “Time’s Up.”
Men in Black (1997)
The odd sensation of realizing that every one of the film’s F/X highlights were given away in the trailer—several months before.
John Travolta and Nicholas Cage square off to settle their differences, and John Woo’s stellar slo-mo camera catches every dove-flying moment of the firefight.
Billy Bob Thorton’s NASA chief explains the relative size of the oncoming asteroid.
Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999)
Grasping the unsettling fact that the pod racer sequence was probably going to be the highlight of the new trilogy (and later learning I was right!).
The Matrix (1999)
The long shot of the baby fields, mechanical harvesters doing their unholy business.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The voice of the unseen audience member who screamed “That’s It?” once the camera crashed to the ground after revealing Mike in the corner.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
The shock of seeing John Travolta piss away all this Pulp Fiction goodwill on some sloppy Scientology sci-fi.
Monsters Inc. (2001)
The closet door warehouse, where Pixar’s vast imagination literally knows no limits. It’s so brilliant and breathtaking it literally makes one weep with joy.
Star Wars: Episode 2 - The Attack of the Clones (2002)
Learning that Boba Fett was a whiny little whelp when he was a kid… and that Anakin Skywalker grew up to be an even bigger lox.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Two trucks crash head on after one of the most amazing car chases ever filmed, and the visionary Wachowski’s capture every metal crunching moment of it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
The moment Johnny Depp walks on camera—an instant icon is born!
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
An elevated train is out of control and while our superhero is trying to stop it, he is constantly interrupted by the sinister Dr. Octopus.
The Incredibles (2004)
The ear to ear grin on my face when the final credits started to roll. It was a position I had maintained throughout the entire running time of this CG classic.
The War of the Worlds (2005)
Steven Spielberg’s decision not to show us the battle raging on the other side of the hill.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
The moment when Willy Wonka’s Disneyworld inspired welcome display catches fire, and melts in a Hellish combination of kitsch and calamity.
Star Wars: Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The painful hackneyed quality of Darth Vader’s voice as he screams “NOOOOOOO” post-surgical modification.
The Ferraris finally come to Luigi and Guido’s shop… with shocking results.
Clerks II (2006)
Kevin Smith’s amazing use of music, from the Jackson Five’s “ABC” as the backdrop for a dance lesson to the brilliant juxtaposition of The Smashing Pumpkin’s “1979” with Dante and Becky’s contemplative faces.
The moment when restaurant critic Anton Ego tastes the title dish for the first time. Pure visual memory magic.
Cillian Murphy answers the key question of this remarkable film: How much would you, personally, sacrifice to save the entire human race?
Knocked Up (2007)
Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann running down the aisles of a pharmacy, loading up on pregnancy tests as the Clash’s cover of Eddie Grant’s “Police on My Back” blares in the background.
And you know what the best part is? The next four months will provide even more. Sure, the cranial filing cabinets feel full, and the system no longer allows for the easiest of access, but memories are the honest reason that movies are magic. Like a song that won’t leave your head, or a book that forms the foundation of how you view the world, sound and vision in combination create that most unique of universes, a realm where we can get lost while concurrently finding ourselves. So what if they are often underdeveloped? Who cares if good ideas get marginalized in favor of demographically determined sameness. When they work, nothing is better than a film. And I’ll be more than happy to spend 40 more years finding that out, thank you very much.