Movies and Me
Entertainment writer Daniel Neman on how he came to be a film critic.
Other kids had posters of The Beatles on their walls, or sports stars, or Led Zeppelin, or those cool, hallucinatory black-light posters from Spencer Gifts.
I had a poster of King Kong over my bed. Off to the side was a poster of W. C. Fields holding a hand of poker cards and looking deliciously untrustworthy.
Now that I think about it, I may have been a little unusual.
AFFLICTED BY COMEDIES
I was born into a movie-loving household, and my father in particular had a fondness for the older films from his childhood and from before he was born. He loved the silent films, especially the silent comedies, and the early talkie comedies, and he passed this affection on to me.
Not that it took much doing. I just had to watch Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe in the 1925 smash The Gold Rush or Buster Keaton accidentally capturing a Northern general in the 1926 romp The General, and I was utterly, completely hooked.
How could I not be? The silent comedians appealed to the child in everyone, especially children. The Marx Brothers, who made their best films in the early days of the talkies, created a wild anti-establishment anarchy that spoke directly to every 10-year-old’s heart. And Fields, who I am afraid is starting to be overlooked by film aficionados, was casually deceitful in a hilariously grandiloquent way.
In that scene on my bedroom wall, from 1940’s My Little Chickadee, Fields, playing Cuthbert J. Twillie, is asked whether poker is a game of chance. His timeless response is, “Not the way I play it, no.”
So is it any wonder that when I faced the first crisis of my life I turned to the movies?
MOVIES VS. HEARTBREAK
The crisis was universal, inevitable. I fell in love, as only a kid in high school can fall. After a relatively short period of unalloyed bliss, she broke my heart because, well, she was a girl and that is what girls do. Immediately, I became depressed, sullen and miserable in a whiny, ultra-adolescent sort of way.
I was such a wretched person that I really did not want to be around myself. I had to escape. But I didn’t drink … at the time. And I certainly didn’t do drugs – those were for the kids with the cool, hallucinatory black-light posters from Spencer Gifts. What I had was the movies. And so it was to the movies that I turned. For an hour and a half or two hours, I could somewhat lose myself (depending on the quality of the film) in the cares and woes of others, in heroic deeds and action films and tales of doomed love – although, frankly, the tales of doomed love only made me gloomier.
So did the tales of triumphant love. I happened to have been lucky. The period of my despair coincided neatly with a brief renaissance of art films, foreign films and classic films. Just when I needed movies the most, movies were there in the form of two repertory theaters that showed a rotating schedule of a couple of often-great movies every day. I saw two or three of these films each week, and though my heart was still broken, I at least felt less bad about myself than I did during the hours when I was not in a theater.
COUNTIN’ MOVIES ON THE WALL …
Incidentally, during the months I was wallowing in my misery and seeking refuge in darkened movie theaters, I got the only straight A’s of my life. That’s a lesson for you kids to remember.
My heart eventually healed, sort of, but the movie habit stuck with me. I went to college and got lucky a second time; my school had a couple of great film societies that made it possible to see two or three movies every night. And often I did. I tend to count things – call it a minor case of OCD – and at the end of each school year I counted up the movies I had seen that year. Every year of college, I saw between 140 and 145 movies in just the nine months of the school year.
My grades could have been better. But for a movie-struck geek who, at some point in his senior year decided it might be interesting to try to become a film critic, it was an education that was priceless.