By Scott Ross
When I first saw Alien in 1979, knowing almost nothing about it, and John Hurt gave birth to the chest-burster, I had my first attack of hyperventilation and nearly had to be taken out of the theatre. Seeing it again last night promoted me think of other movies whose introduction into my life were experiences so intense that their initial impact has never wholly faded. The reasons vary, but what unites these disparate threads is the simple power of images — the thing that has enthralled a hundred years of movie-going audiences. And even if, as I sadly believe, the movies’ best days are behind them, the images remain — behind the third eye as it were, always available for re-screening at the hint of mental recall. Here, the first titles that occur to me, and that had the greatest, and most lasting, impact.
Mary Poppins: Very possibly the first movie I “saw,” at a drive-in theatre with my parents, likely during the summer of 1965. Being only 4 years old and used to early bedtimes I fell asleep fairly quickly, but woke up to see the Banks children being approached by the old crone and menaced by the dog in the alley. When I saw it again, in the early 1970s during a reissue, that scene was still vivid in my mind, as was the chimneysweeps’ “Step in Time” dance on the rooftop, with Julie Andrews’ cannily designed red dress popping out amid all that black. (I think I stayed awake, as another Sherman Brothers’ song from the movie impelled, after that.)
Irma La Douce: This was the second movie I remember “seeing,” again at a drive-in, probably in 1965, when it ran in a double-feature with Tom Jones. Again, I was asleep for most of it, but remember waking to see a woman with dark hair in a sleeping-mask. Fast-forward to 1972 or so, and watching it with the family on television. When Shirley MacLaine put on the sleeping mask, I had an instant flashback to that night at the drive-in. Imagine: one of my earliest movie memories is of a racy comedy about a Parisian prostitute and her mec!
The Wizard of Oz: On my first viewing, around age 5, I was so terrified of Margaret Hamilton’s witch I hid behind the sofa whenever she was on-screen. I did the same thing, 3 years or so later, when Darby O’Gill and the Little People was reissued, crouching down on the theatre floor at the first sight of the wailing banshee, and begging my sister to tell me when it was gone.
Pinocchio: One of the first movies I saw in North Carolina after the family moved there from Ohio in 1971. The transformation of Lampwick into a donkey stayed with me for decades. A nightmare sequence, terrible in its delineation of panic, terror and hopelessness. Only later, as an adult, did I come to appreciate the totality of this exceptional achievement, its beauty and its astonishing pictorial texture.
1776: Say what you will about this one, to have it come my way at the age of 11, when I was just beginning to become immersed in theatre, musical theatre, movies and American history, the picture was an instant touchstone.
Cabaret: I saw this on a reissue, the night after having seen the musical play on which it is based in a surprisingly fine dinner-theatre production, a present for my 12th birthday. At first I was disappointed; the movie was so different. I had been an avid listener of the 1967 cast album, borrowed repeatedly from a local library, and I missed those songs, particularly Lotte Lenya’s. (I was not yet the Isherwood maven I would become.) But it grew on me, steadily. I was absolutely dazed by Bob Fosse’s staging, editing and choreography, unaccountably both titillated and disappointed by the ménage that never happens, and highly amused when Michael York exploded, “Oh, screw Maximilian!”, Liza Minnelli responded coolly, “I do,” and York, after an initial shock, smiled and riposted, “So do I.” That exchange also tickled by best friend, with whom I saw the movie, and for personal reasons it would take me some time to understand… as it would to comprehend my own, nascent and very buried, sexuality.
Gone with the Wind: Love it, loathe it, dismiss it or embrace it, to see this movie on a big screen, at 13, with my mother and sister, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my early adolescence. The dolly-in close-up on Clark Gable’s grin (“Wow!” I whispered to my mother); Hattie McDaniel’s big, broad face; the removal of the Confederate soldier’s leg; the massive crane shot of Scarlett at the depot; the burning of Atlanta; the collapse of her horse as she sights Tara; the shooting of the renegade Union soldier; Scarlett’s “morning after” smile; her fall down the stairs; the deaths of O’Hara, Bonnie Blue and Melanie. When one is older, one can also roll one’s eyes at the appalling “happy darkies workin’ for Massa” aspects, but also more fully what a pillar of iron the seemingly weak Melanie actually is, and better appreciate the rich humor of the thing, and the sheer prowess David O. Selznick showed in putting it together.
Jaws: Seen in 1975, when it opened. Sure, I remembered poor Ben Gardner’s head scaring the bejeezus out of Richard Dreyfuss (and the packed audience in the theatre), and Robert Shaw being eaten whole. But the images that haunted me were: The shots of Roy Scheider trying to see past the beach-goers obscuring his field of vision; the stunning close-up, a few moments later (a simultaneous zoom-forward/dolly-back) of Scheider’s face as little Alex Kintner is attacked; and the scene of Scheider racing to the estuary. I think Spielberg’s direction really introduced me that day to the power of moving-picture images on a technical as well as emotional level.
Marathon Man: The second “R”-rated movie I saw, in 1976. (The first was Blazing Saddles, in a reissue.) The sense of unnerving terror that permeates the narrative, exploding here and there as it unfurls, driving toward a violent, ironic climax, kept me in a tight grip throughout. Although I had read William Goldman’s popular novel before seeing this re-imagining of it (which he also wrote) and knew more or less what to expect of plot and character, nothing prepared me for the creeping dread, nor the elegantly shot and edited set-pieces with their seemingly incongruous blood and violence and horror, that John Schlesinger brought to it. Pauline Kael complained that director and film were a mis-match; that Schlesinger’s direction was too stylish and accomplished — too sumptuous, and serious — for what she regarded as pulp material, but I demur. It is precisely the luminous, autumnal glow and gleaming elegance of surface that make the ensuing action of the movie so uniquely disturbing and disorienting.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Deliberately knowing as little as I could about it, I saw this one on its second weekend. (Although my loose-lipped high school newspaper adviser, who’d seen it the opening week, spoiled the Devil’s Tower mystery for our entire class.) When you aren’t aware, in advance, whether the visitors are malign or not — and, really, even if you are — the sequence in which little Barry is abducted is absolutely terrifying. When the screws on the floor heating vent unscrewed by themselves, sending poor Melina Dillon into a justifiable panic, we were right there with her. Yet this is the most benign of all UFO movies, and, for me at 16, the most completely entrancing movie I had ever seen.
An Unmarried Woman: I saw this one solo, as was often the case at that time. I was working at a local movie theatre, had a pass, and went to damn near everything. While by no means a humorless feminist tract, Paul Mazursky’s magnificently textured exploration of what happens to one, rather typical New Yorker, when her husband of many years dumps her for a younger woman was revelatory. It seemed impossible for a man — a modern writer, anyway — to have conceived it, let alone writing and directing so complete a portrait. I went back to it over and over, always bringing a woman with me (my sister, once, close friends at other times.) It feels now as though the movie came from an ancient time, or a distant planet, where it was not only possible to make such things, but to get large numbers of people, of both genders, to see and to love them.
Alien: I know I run the risk of admission to fogiedom when I say this, but for anyone who wasn’t there in 1979, it’s almost impossible to describe the impact Alien had on we who saw it when it was new. The working-class grunginess, the slowly building terror, the genuine shocks, the unsettlingly sensual biomechanical Giger designs, and the sheer, unholy scale of the thing, were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It was the anti-Star Wars, the acid-bath flip-side of Close Encounters. Movies were tough then, but seldom quite this tough — or this unrelentingly dark and claustrophobic. Few movies I’ve seen before or since have had that kind of impact. And they did it all by hand.
Norma Rae. One of a tiny handful of American movies concerning labor, and with Matewan, one of the two finest. (Warren Beatty’s masterpiece Reds is practically a special institution, not really about the labor movement as much as about the radical minds that agitated for it.) The most stirring moment in the movie was taken from life; when she was fired for her union activism, Crystal Lee Sutton stood on her work table with a hand-made sign and held it up as her co-workers began turning off their machines in solidarity. In the movie of her story, the screenwriters Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch and the director Martin Ritt give this moment special prominence, and it isn’t merely a matter of Fields’ splendid performance, or of Norma’s courage: We are acutely aware of the sounds of the plant, and, in the absence of a distracting, emotion-pumping musical score, of how shockingly silence emerges from it. All that quiet, suddenly, in a place where silence is never heard.
All That Jazz: My Star Wars — the movie I saw repeatedly over the first year or two of its release, and never tired of. For a budding playwright, besotted with theatre and longing to secure my own place in it, Bob Fosse’s mad, flamboyant epic, with its incendiary editing, hallucinatory structure, and obsession with death, became for me a kind of rite of passage.
Richard Pryor in Concert: Pryor’s first solo effort was, and remains, the single funniest movie I’ve ever seen. We were, quite literally, falling, if not out of our seats, at least bending so far forward in them we risked serious injury, and our faces ached from laughing for some time afterward. Genius, unfettered and unrestrained, given full play, as it never was in any of Pryor’s more traditional narrative movies, which somehow could not meet, match or contain the troubled meteor at their center.
GoodFellas: Arguably the most exhilarating tour de force movie of its decade. No one limned the easy allure of crime, or the shocking availability and prevalence of sudden violence, quite like Martin Scorsese.
Lawrence of Arabia: I’d seen it once, on a very small, black-and-white television, in a network airing of the truncated theatrical version. I was given the widescreen cassettes of David Lean’s restoration as a birthday present, and to call that an improvement on my initial exposure would be comparable to noting that sachertorte beats a Moon Pie. But finally getting to see the “Director’s Cut” on a big screen, in a theatre, knocks every previous viewing from the memory, replacing it with splendor few movies ever provide — not merely the stunning desert vistas or the big set-pieces, but the enigma at its center, exemplified (if never fully explained), by Peter O’Toole’s magnificent performance.
The Wild Bunch: Another “Director’s Cut” experience, and one that left me literally, not figuratively, dazed for about a week afterward. No other movie I know is more concerned with violence — its effect as well as its execution. From the opening massacre, and the dreadful sight of the scorpions beset by an army of ants that forms perhaps too easy a metaphor but remains indelible, to the horses falling to the water, to the final walk of the Bunch and their terrible end, Sam Peckinpaw had me by the throat, and kept choking.
Tired of being disappointed, over and over and over, I go to few new movies now. Two, I think, in the past six or seven years. But in a sense, I really don’t need to. I’m not an adolescent or a thrill-junkie, and anyway, the imagery that remains embedded in my memory from forty and more years ago and remains so vivid still does not require jostling, and certainly not replacing. I’m still discovering older movies, on disc, that, whatever their age, are new to me and they more than fulfill my requirements, so it isn’t that I’m not open to new images. But with such a rich store, I just don’t need them.
Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross