No, I don’t mean that moment that warms the heart of Woody Allen fans when Liev Schreiber’s foot makes contact with Mia Farrow’s face in the 2006 remake of The Omen. I’m after something else here. I’m curious about those things that give the act of watching a movie that certain something that elevates the experience beyond the movie itself. I know for a lot of people it has to do with the company they’re in at any given showing. More than once, I’ve seen people comment that they like a movie better than they should because of who they saw it with. And since movies ideally are a communal undertaking, that’s not necessarily a bad answer.
I know, for example, that my original viewing of the Mervyn LeRoy-Busby Berkeley film Golddiggers of 1933 (1933) was greatly enhanced by the company I was keeping. I don’t just mean that I liked the people I was with (I did, but I try to make it a habit not to go to movies with people I don’t like). It had to do with the fact that they were as jazzed by what they were seeing as I was. The enthusiasm was, in fact, so high that we immediately dashed back—talking non-stop about how wonderful the film was—to one of my companion’s houses so that the more musically-inclined of the group could try to work out how to play “Remember My Forgotten Man” on the piano before the tune like the man of the title was forgotten. (This was 1973 or 74 and the chances then of tracking down 40-year-old sheet music were marginal at best.)
Now, the film still does it for me on every level. It is, in fact, one of the films I use for the specific purpose of introducing those who are resistant to watching an old movie to sit through an old movie to see if just maybe they’ve been watching the wrong old movies. (It usually works, too.) But I wonder if I’d be doing this if that first exposure to it hadn’t been such a strongly positive experience of the sort that only comes from that sense of shared excitement and the sense of shared discovery. I know Golddiggers of 1933 would be a great picture regardless of that, but would it hold quite as high a place in my heart?
Of course, there’s a potential downside to this sort of thing. My father always hated Casablanca (1942). It had nothing to do with the movie itself. His dislike of the movie was stubbornly grounded in the fact that he saw it on a bad date. It seems that the girl he went to the movie with insisted on wearing a sweatshirt to the theater, and apparently this was some kind of breach of social standards in 1942. I guess my dad was a stickler for propriety when he was 17. It seems kind of silly and pig-headed to me.
I’m sure we’ve all had some variation on this. I’m certain that my original take on The Exorcist (1973) was colored negatively by the fact that my group found itself joined by someone who was that awful combination of being none-too-bright and exceedingly outspoken. His occasional disruptions of “This ain’t scary” were one thing, but when the movie hit the infamous scene where Linda Blair performs an indelicate and blasphemous act with a crucifix, he just had to inquire, “What’s she stabbin’ herself in the stomach for?” It is very difficult to regain the mood of the film in the wake of such a query, I can tell you.
Back to the more positive side of things, though, was a personal reinforcement in the past couple days of something I’ve long known. I suppose it’s something that goes with the mindset of being a critic/historian, since most of us who go into this sort of thing do so—at least I hope—for the love of the movies and a desire to pass that love on to others. We are, I think, born proselytizers. This is something that I think a lot of people tend to forget, since there seems to be a greater chance that people remember the movies we’ve eviscerated and not the ones we’ve praised. That factor—quite naturally—becomes even greater if the critic tears into a movie the reader thought was the bee’s knees.
The fact is, though, that most of us are here hoping to turn you on to things we think are worthwhile and that we care about. Believe it or not, it causes me no pain whatever if someone wants to see Transformers. On the other hand, it causes me some joy if I get someone to go see Whatever Works or Easy Virtue and they find that they liked them. That, in fact, is the true kick to be gotten out of the job. There’s a lot more satisfaction in that. Having someone tell me (as happened) that they went to see P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan (a movie I’d expected to hate) because of my recommendation and that he or so was glad they went is a lot more pleasing than having someone agree that, yeah, Terminator Salvation was pretty awful.
It’s really not a whole lot different from seeing a movie and then taking your friends to it because, “You’ve got to see this.” Now, that idea in itself is relatively new—at least on a large scale. It came into being in its present mass audience form in 1977 with Star Wars, a movie that thrived on—and gave the movies a whole new model in this regard—repeat business and people taking their friends to see it. Some of us were doing that already, but we were kind of viewed as the lunatic fringe on the basis of, “Why would you want to see it if you know how it ends?” Those of us who write about movies professionally have slightly different tools and approaches—a simple “you gotta see this” doesn’t quite cut it—but at bottom, it’s the same thing.
And don’t think it ends with “going professional.” This week I had occasion to run two movies for people on an in-person basis. The first was the Lloyd Bacon-Busby Berkeley musical 42nd Street (1933). No one in the little group besides me—there were five of us—had seen it. I’m not sure that they quite knew what to expect. I don’t believe it was even a title to them and I doubt that Busby Berkeley was previously a blip on their radar. One of them had been at the Ken Russell birthday screening of The Boy Friend (1971) a week and a half ago, so he perhaps got some added enjoyment from recognizing where some of the inspirations for the newer movie originated. The others were in the dark—literally and figuratively—but I can guarantee that they all know who Busby Berkeley is now. One of them—a fledgling filmmaker himself—immediately afterwards started outlining a plan for a film that could adopt and adapt some of the techniques from this old, old movie.
The next night we ran Tommy. It doesn’t take a lot of prodding to get me to show this, as anybody who knows me even slightly is well aware. Two of the ones who wanted to see it had seen it before. One of them was, in fact, examining the DVD case and remarking, “I love this movie.” The third—the fledgling filmmaker again—had never seen it. And even though he had seen and responded very positively to some other Ken Russell movies, I wasn’t entirely sure how he would feel about this one. I sometimes worry that some of the aspects of it—like the rapid cutting and the matching of image to music—have been so assimilated into film in general in the intervening years that they won’t seem as fresh and innovative to someone who didn’t see it in 1975. I needn’t have worried. We got to the end of the movie and no one got up during the credits—always a good sign. When the screen went dark, he said only three words, “That was beautiful.” That is the sort of moment that probably gives me my biggest kick with moviegoing.