Friday, November 18, 2011

Abby's First Movie Redux

(This is a re-edited posting from the Box Office Weekly Podcast site from around March 2008. I just recovered an old hard drive with a bunch of these articles-- the online versions are gone, down some Australian memory hole. I'm republishing this one, and one other that I think is totally worth revisiting. --S)

Last weekend my niece Abigail reached a milestone in her young life-- she was taken to her first movie.

This event is a sort of maturity marker for parents-- To take a very young child to a theatres makes some basic assumptions: Will he or she sit still for two hours? Will he or she understand, or at least uncomprehendingly enjoy, the movie? Does he or she know that you have to use your quiet, whisper voice? Well, these SHOULD be the criteria for taking small children to movies: Anyone who has attended a popular film lately must believe, as I do, that there must be some sort of terrible babysitter shortage.

According to her mommy Abigail, who is two years and nine months old, passed with flying colors, enjoying Horton Hears a Who! (d. Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, 2008) in a matinee screening.

I had an opportunity to drop by Abigail's place, where she consented to a brief interview about her cinematic experience. She is just as cute as a bug's ear, my niece.

UNCLE SKOT: Abigail?
ABIGAIL: What, unka?
US: Did you see a movie?
A: Uh huh.
US: What did you see?
A: Um. Horton.
US: What's Horton?
A: Elephant.
ABIGAIL'S MOMMY: What do the Whos say, Abigail? (note: They say "We are here!")
A: Help! Help!
US: Do you want to go to the movies again?
A: I want to go to Africa.
(Abigail begins a new conversation with her imaginary friend Michelle, effectively ending the interview.)

It brought back something of a special event for everyone: That first movie. Really, you were taken you your first film before the age of four you don't really remember it. Long-lasting memories are tied into brain developments that occur about age four or so, so even if you have scraps of vivid memories your brain didn't have a good filing system in place. Still, that first movie one can remember seeing was special.

I dropped a few emails into the ether, asking people the first film they and got a surprising variety of answers. Actually, most of the first movie experiences were Disney movies, which is not surprising at all: In the pre-home video days they constantly re-released their features, two a year by average.

GLEN (California--where he was as a kid): Mary Poppins. I'd just turned four years old. The film was released in August of that '64, but I'm sure it was tough for mom to get the trip all organized, so we made it to the theater near the end of the film's first run. Mom and Grandma took my two sisters and I. I'm pretty sure we saw it in Burbank, but maybe San Fernando. The house must've been packed, because I remember we were in the front row. The theater seemed really fancy, wherever it was.

JOHN (California): I believe it was Snow White. I have the vaguest of memories of sitting in the theater watching it.

SUE (Great Britain): Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Other recollections are eclectic to say the least:

DANNY (Louisiana): Well, I definitely remember seeing The Poseidon Adventure in the theater.  When the ship rolled over, so did my soda! The Jungle Book was also a big early one.  Not sure if that predates Poseidon.

SCOTT (California): It’s interesting that you would ask this question today. On this morning’s show [Scott hosts a weekly radio show] we talked about the passing of Arthur C. Clarke, and I mentioned seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater when I was 4, and that’s the reason I’m so messed up now.

CHRIS (California): Dr. Doolittle.

DAEV (Arizona): Hmm… I have a vivid recollection of seeing 2001 at a drive-in, but I think Cat Ballou or Oklahoma! was the first I saw in an indoor theater, probably at a matinee.

CAMERON (Australia): I can't remember exactly but it was either Enter The Dragon (my dad taking me to the drive-in) or Star Wars!

BILL (California): I have a memory of seeing a very boring film about Bigfoot at the Capitola theater.  Searching IMDb, it may have been Bigfoot: Man or Beast?  I guess I was about six.

This last one is great-- Bigfoot was released by American National, a bottom-dwelling roadshow exhibitor like Sunn Classic Pictures used to be. They specialized in exploitation films: Chariots of the Gods, In Search of Historic Jesus, stuff like that. They released their terrible, non-factual documentaries "four-wall:" Rent movie screens (all 'four walls") in a particular TV demographic region, then blitz the local channels with lurid, overheated ads. Fast money made, they would move on to the next demographic area.

Still, it's all part of the film experience we all fell in love with. There you are, tiny in your chair, in a big dark room. The images on the screen are titanic, the colors intense, the sound loud. There is something about the act an ritual of moviegoing that makes us all kids, looking up at a world that is larger than life, larger than us.

--Skot C.

p.s. What, MY first movie? I'll never forget it: The Sand Pebbles (d. Robert Wise, 1966). What on earth was my dad thinking, dragging a four-year-old to a bloody, violent, morally ambiguous, patently adult three-hour-long film? Well, he was a former Marine, and he probably was very interested in the story of a headstrong, anti-authoritarian sailor (Steve McQueen) caught up in the turmoil of American gunboat diplomacy in 1920s China? He probably thought I'd, in the parlance of the times, "learn something." Dad would later drag me along to enjoy such family-friendly movies as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

I did learn something: I learned how beautiful and exotic the world looked when it was shot in Panavision and projected on an 80' screen. The photography for The Sand Pebbles was (and still is!) stunning, washes of blues and oranges, Chinese alleys and streets disappearing into mist. The final showdown in the Mission was a perfectly choreographed sequence (rendered in dark blues and grays by DP Joseph MacDonald), just Steve McQueen and his Browning Automatic Rifle valiantly defying his fate. On the way home, dad told me that was the kind of gun he used in the Marines (they gave the tall guys in the squad the heavy machine gun).

So I gained two things at my first movie: the beginning of an abiding passion for cinema, and a rudimentary working knowledge of mid-20th-century American military firearms. --s

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