by Martin Gliserman
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 25-26
As much as anything the following personal film history is an invitation to its readers to write and share their own histories. By itself this piece is rather naked. It needs to be put in the context of many others where it can shed most of its individuality and line up with the themes and patterns of others. My fantasy is that many readers will find the idea interesting enough to respond by writing their own and that the editors of Jump Cut will be persuaded to publish their first book, entitled, perhaps, "Saturday Afternoons."
By way of preface let me say a few things about the purpose and value of such an enterprise. Our individual experience of going to the movies is at once personal, social, and political. I would like to explore the personal dimension of the audience's relation to film as one way of understanding some of the social and political implications of that relation. The value of writing one's own history and then seeing it in the context of others is much like other forms of consciousness raising. When personal responses are seen from the perspective of a larger group, the individual reaches a deeper understanding and critical awareness of his/her own experience. Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Herder and Herder: New York, 1972) offers us a complete description and illustration of the values and methods of this kind of "thematic investigation." Basically, people talk with each other about their responses to a shared cultural experience in order to grasp both individual and collective history in a non-alienating way. As Freire puts it, one objective is for
The original context of this history was a course I developed, Psychology and Cinema. The first assignment I asked students to do was a film history (the directions for which are appended). Since it was the first time I had taught the course, I thought it best to do the assignment in order to accomplish the following: to learn something of my own history, to have something to share with students, to model "experiential" discourse and validate its use in the learning process, and to see what kinds of difficulties emerged in doing the piece.
I did not assign or read the students' histories with the idea of analyzing them or writing about them. Thus, I do not have many useful generalizations to offer as examples of a thematic investigation. I was impressed by the almost ritual nature of the students’ early film going — being dropped off and picked up, going with friends, going with the family to a drive in, eating popcorn, etc. At the same time, I was struck by individual responses — one student reported being very upset to learn on the way to her first movie that one was not supposed to talk during the showing. She made her father drive around the block at least three times while she tried to make up her mind. The value of reading all the histories was akin to reading books like Studs Terkel's Working or Robert and Jane Coles' Women of Crisis: I was learning about a dimension of cultural reality in an unalienated way.
I have been going to the movies since the age of seven or eight. Most of my early ventures were fraught with anxiety. I went to a lot of westerns, not that I had much choice, where fights and chases were the center of energy. I worried a lot during these scenes. The films generated visceral anxiety — tightness in the gut and jaw, decreased blood flow to the extremities. The action in the film poised me to fight or flee, but there was no one to hit and nowhere to run. I was stuck in my chair, paralytic and clenched. The films must have resonated with my primitive wishes, fears, and prohibitions — about material goods, violence, revenge, getting caught. The basic plot situation was that someone (bad guy) took something from someone else (victim), and someone else again (good guy, savior cowboy) tried to right the wrong. Although the moral tale was played out as an interpersonal conflict, I can see now that I also "read" the conflict intra-psychically. It was not only the bad guy out there but also the bad guy inside me whom I wanted to get caught and punished.
It was usually on Saturday afternoons. We'd take a bus up to Broadway (Revere, Massachusetts). We? Kids from the neighborhood — "Hey, Ma, Kenny and Gary and Stewie are goin' to the movies, canIgotoohuh?" There was always some cartoon violence and humor — little creatures getting the best of big creatures after the big ones rather tormented the little ones — no doubt bad mommies and daddies getting what they deserved. In my case, the big creatures were also my older brother and some schoolyard bullies, whom I always aspired to beat up. He often took advantage of his five-year advantage and loved to scare me. Once he took me for a ride on the handlebar of his bike. He drove me down a long, steep hill — I was petrified. Once he took me to a movie. Initially I couldn't understand why he wanted to — it was a 3D movie about a magician. I was really frightened when the eerie-looking bats zoomed in on me. I could almost feel the cobwebs in my face.
I also ate a lot of sugar, mostly in the form of Jujubes and Juicy Fruits. I'd suck and bite and chew and then stick my fingers in my mouth to get the pieces out of my teeth, etc. The eating intensified with the action and was an attempt to allay anxiety (I was an old-time thumb sucker), but the sugar, in fact, had its own course of action. When I got home, my mother, perceiving me to be in an odd mood, would ask if everything was OK. Like a good cowboy, I'd look serious and say nothing about my feelings. "Nah, everything's OK." Coming home, getting off the various highs, was like the end of a bad trip. But, of course, I couldn't stop going; there was something too good about it, all that excitement.
As I think about it, these early films were a kind of preteen sex — seeing dangerous things, gunfights and fistfights and chases and horses and big hats — and virtually no women. The price of the excitement was psychologically somewhat high: I felt a lot of frustrations and inhibitions as I left the movies and squinted in the daylight of concrete Broadway. I couldn't have a horse and was not likely to be a cowboy. I did not like the sadism of the bad guys (though I had my sadistic urges). I couldn't honestly identify with the heroes, and though I might wish I were one, I knew my skinny, unmuscled frame too well. That left me with the victim roles, which was uncomfortably passive — and not unlike being the viewer.
The next phase of movie going coincided with teenaged dating. I recall none of the films. The movies became a space rather than an event. I remember going to a drive-in on a double date to see TWO WOMEN, but I did not see more than the titles. When I had my license I went to the drive-in alone with a girl named Nancy; we didn't see anything either. The movies became a place to grope, one of the few places of its kind. There were endless kisses, but that's about all.
Serious movie going started in college, where I got involved through a friend, Paul Strong, with a film club, New Directions. The club was actually three faculty couples — Meaders, Wees, and Robertsons — and a small handful of students. The faculty arranged to get the films. The students helped make posters, hung them up, and collected money ($.50) at the door. Afterwards, we went to someone's house, drank beer, and talked — renarrating and dramatizing favorite scenes, with some discussion of cutting, acting, and so forth. As much as anything, I enjoyed being with these faculty people — in fact, I'm still good friends with some of them. It made me feel older to be with them, and they were like a family to me. The films were mostly foreign — Fellini, Godard, Bergman, Kurosawa — and experimentals were shown as shorts — Baillie, Brakhage, Meader. The foreign films appealed to me a lot. I liked seeing people on screen with whom I could identify more. I wasn't a cowboy, I wore glasses. I wasn't all-American, I am thoroughly Russian Jew (assimilated, but …). In foreign films people have noses that seem closer to my own; they make gestures I feel akin to; they are not typically beautiful but seem more ordinary. I liked the styles of clothes and housing. Everyone wasn't rich. My appreciation was also a way of rejecting the fraternity scene, the American way, my "boring" middle-class family, the bourgeois roots that were spreading. It was, as well, a form of snobbery, for I often failed to understand the films though I might pretend otherwise. I was trying these films on — Marty Belmondo, Sven Gliserman. It was often the music of the movie that grabbed me and, as I see in retrospect, misled me — I think of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER or JULIET OF THE SPIRITS.
I have since that time seen many of the films again, and I realize how little I grasped. I don't recall talking about how I felt about the films beyond a "boy, that was good" or "I really liked that part where …" I don't recall making meaning so much as reliving the narrative. I did begin to understand that the movies took me over. They invaded my sense of self, changed my mood, made me want to act out and redramatize the hero's attitudes. I did not go deep enough into self-consciousness to understand its context.
This would be a less than truthful account if sexuality weren't mentioned. Foreign films seemed much more advanced in regard to sexuality. There would often be a sexually explicit scene — meaning, generally, that a woman's breasts would be exposed to view. I found this very exciting. When there was love in these movies, it wasn't just mushy — it was physical. My college experience made me into an addict. The experience was surrounded by good things — older people who took me seriously, being with the woman I wanted to marry (and did), exposed to a vision of the world that gave me new role models, aesthetic values, and sexual excitement. The overall concern of these films seemed more psychological and existential than those I had known earlier, and there was much less violence. I did not comprehend the universe they showed me, but I was learning how to see.
In graduate school there was little money and less time. We didn't have a television and Bloomington didn't bring many interesting new films to the Von Lee cinema. There were film series which allowed us to see some classics, but we were pressed for time. I recall walking out of BONNIE AND CLYDE because of its violence. There was a man in the back of the theater yelling, "Viet Nam, it's fuckin' Viet Nam." Once we got to New Jersey, we went to New York and saw many new films as they opened. This had its "status," of course, like reading the latest John Barth novel or whatever. New York is full of "first on the block" experiences or "one of a kind" experiences, and when we came "back East" we were hungry for these bourgeois treats. LAST TANGO IN PARIS was one of those "first-run" films. I felt speechless after seeing it; there were many disturbing scenes and issues in it — sexual, death struggles, madness, and loss. It was one of the last films I saw with my wife, who died in 1973. Seeing the film again, alone, and knowing more about death, the film gave me some perspective on my own pain and confusion, lust and anger.
Being "single," I pushed myself to go to the movies alone. It wasn't quite as much fun, but in the city it did not feel strange because many people do it. The movies became a place to go with "dates" — they gave us something to talk about, provided an experience to work on. I know that I measured people by the post-film talks we'd have. And I measured films by how often they became a point of reference. I have recently been married again, so I've been going to films with the same person for several years. This is something wonderful since films provide a thematic reference; they enrich our lives.
I like to see many kinds of movies, but some I deeply enjoy — those which resonate with my values in some way: I think of CHINATOWN, BREAKER MORANT, MAX HAVELAAR, and THE CHINA SYNDROME. I would have to say that I enjoyed seeing SUPERMAN; it is a fun fantasy and one that brings back an "old-time" set of recollections. I cried, laughed, held my breath, caught a glimpse of Lois Lane through her flimsy dress. But it's like a hot fudge sundae; I couldn't live off it. Kukrosawa's KAGEMUSHA, on the other hand, I found deeply satisfying. The genre — a samurai drama — is not one I'd pick as a favorite. But the film was beautiful and rich — I'd see it again (I've seen it four times) to look at the kimonos and the gestures, to hear the voices.
There are varieties of films I stay away from — sex exploitation, kung fu, etc. I look for directors and actors I like. I'm interested in what comes out of different countries — Japan, Italy, Germany, France, South America. Film broadens horizons by shrinking them; people are people, conflicts are conflicts. I have seen a number of sex films — DEEP THROAT, THROUGH THE GREEN DOOR — but find that the excitement is contraindicated by the self-consciousness one feels (to say nothing of the politics). It is difficult to make love after seeing them without feeling that I'm making a movie rather than participating in a human event involving me and someone else. What I like in a film is earned excitement — fear, anguish, sexual arousal — as opposed to cheap thrills. I like buildup, slow, ironic, digressive. I enjoy nonstop comedy, too, slapstick, racy — I laughed a lot at UP IN SMOKE. And certainly when I was single, Woody Allen became an ever-present and benign alter ego, always ready with a smile.
Movies are a form of news, too. They tell me what kinds of social forces and feelings are around or are being exploited. They define an atmosphere, an attitude, a set of moods. I got a cable channel (The Movie Channel) so I could catch things I wouldn't be likely to see (as well as to see things again), just to keep up with the news. It's fun to see directors stealing ideas from others and doing a lousy job for a cheap thrill — e.g., the number of "scary" shower scenes… The contrasts give me more appreciation. Watching movies at home, I often shut off the sound so I can sharpen up my "technical" eye.
One film that had an interesting impact on me was Warhol's X-rated FRANKENSTEIN, a 3D spoof (which is now returning to the screen as an R-rated film). It was so graphic — there was so much bodily viscera making its way to about three inches of my face — that I had to say, "This is a movie. These are tricks." The film gave me an experience that allowed me to see that I was in a funhouse, and that gave me an important kind of distance from the experience. I tended to merge in movies (and elsewhere as well). The ability to do so seems important — i.e., to let oneself go — but it isn't the only modality of relationship. Films still grip me — THE NEEDLE'S EYE left me exhausted from anxiety — but I feel free to choose.
What do these recollections and responses add up to? — On one level going to the movies is personal. I go to be meditatively engaged and yet to be excited, aroused, satisfied, sobered. I love to look, to see beauty, to see forms change. I go to wrestle with my anxieties." The movies are a kind of temple — away from daily routine, into a different order of experience, though one that reflects back onto daily routine. In some analogous way. I take them seriously, but I feel their play. I go to exercise my feelings and sharpen my "vision." After all, in a lot of my daily work my feelings don't have free reign; they have to be held back and transformed. For example, I may feel angry with a student, but it may not be pedagogically useful to deal with that, so it has to be suspended. Spontaneous feeling often has to be checked out and clarified by a more reflective part of the self. The danger of this habit is that we might end up forgetting our feelings altogether . We might forget, for example, that driving on the Garden State Parkway is dangerous, that the Lincoln Tunnel is noxious, that the administration of the academy does not care about teaching, that the weapons trade is unconscionable. In the movies the movement of my feelings is not hampered; letting them stretch in many directions is simply healthy.
Going to the movies is usually a social event. I go with others to get into something about which I don't have to "do" anything, to share a cultural event with people I like. I like to talk about the movies — to find out how we as individuals saw the action, how we felt about it, what it was that we did see, why we felt as we did, and if we might change our sense of things. In talking about movies I learn about other people (and myself through them). The film is a pattern by means of which I make new patterns with other people. Part of the change, then, I can see, is that as a youngster I desired to act on or act out the drama of the film, but as an adult I want to talk about it. Where the film was a private and anxious experience, it has become an interpersonal, shared, and facilitating experience. Writing about film going, as in this remembrance, widens the experience one more rung — with the hope of pushing the psychological (private politics) toward the political (collective psychology). All in all, this brief remembrance would serve best when washed in the pool of other responses — so please write one.
Appendix: Assignment — a personal history of movie going. This paper on your personal history will establish some of the basic motivations for, and the personal-social context of, going to the movies. The following questions are primers for developing the history. Why do you go to the movies? (Keep asking this question to find answers on various levels.) What do you recall about your earliest experiences at the movies (with whom? when? about what?)? With whom do you often go to the movies? How come you enjoy going to the movies? What do you expect from a movie? What do you want? What do you most enjoy seeing, looking at, in movies? What do you least enjoy? What might prompt you to go to a given movie? Do you have a particularly favorite film? Can you explore why the film has power for you?