I started watching movies on television. Whether Saturday afternoon monster movies, short films on the CBS Children’s Film Festival with Kukla Fran and Ollie, Sunday afternoon matinees, movies of the week on Tuesday nights, Sunday night movies, or Friday night late shows, I watched movies. The movies of my early life ranged from The Red Balloon to The Great Race, from The House of Frankenstein to The Trouble with Angels. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia on a 36-inch screen. I first watched the Wizard of Oz on a black and white television.
My high school, a boarding school, had movies boys could love (James Bond, Juggernaut, and Sky Riders) on Saturday nights. What I most remember are Sundays after church, when I watched the Flash Gordon serials in the tv room of the dorm. My college had a “popular” film series on Friday and Saturday nights—I was recruited to join the selection team because I had seen Enter the Dragon, and members could only nominate films they had seen to add to the series—and an art series on a weeknight. I can admit that I rarely went to the art films, but can remember classmates going on about Renoir’s Beauty and the Beast. I took a cinema class in the spring of my sophomore year, and remember listing Star Wars and Airport among my favorite movies. And then I saw Persona, Masculine/Feminin, Providence, Meshes of an Afternoon, Breathless, Un Chien Andalou, and Birth of a Nation. Kaori Kitao used a projector to screen the films, and we watched and re-watched scenes for hours on Wednesday afternoons. Our three hour class often ran six hours.
In my twenties, my girlfriend bought me a vcr, and between rentals, late-night movies on Philadelphia’s Channel 29, the Ritz Theater, and movies at the TLA, I filled in what I had missed. I saw Bringing Up Baby, The Searchers, Some Like It Hot, Red River, It Happened One Night, Flying Down to Rio, Koyaanisqatsi, Duck Soup, Ran, The Thin Man, Vagabond, Snow White, Freaks, and Claire’s Knee. I watched two or three movies a day. Some movies I watched as many as a dozen times, and there are some, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas come to mind, that I still have not seen and, still, want to see. I watched nearly all of the Marx Brothers, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, and Jacques Tourneur. I liked Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Rosalind Russell, Humphrey Bogart, Irene Dunne, Toshiro Mifune, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, and Charlie Chaplin.
During this time I started writing a novel that I would abandon later. In that process, I went to graduate school, and then started reading books the same way I had watched movies. My walls are lined with bookcases full of the books I read while I found my way as a writer: Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Lorrie Moore. Hundreds more. Nonetheless, given two hours and a good movie, I still get lost in film.
Movies shaped me. My parents did not dispense life lessons, short of “don’t bug the grown ups.” My brothers and I lived fairly privileged and independent lives. My parents expected us to self-entertain, and we lived where we could do exactly that. Our play ranged over many square miles of field and forest. When we got bicycles, we rode as far as our will and muscle would take us. At home we ate dinner together then went to separate rooms to watch television (when we did watch television). Only event movies drew us into a single room. There were times when I was a teenager that my father and I would watch the same movie in different rooms, and at the end, my father would say, “That was good, wasn’t it.”
My father loved movies. He shared his love of old horror movies with us, and we did watch Frankenstein and Godzilla together. Back then, Frankenstein was not played often on television, and one UHF channel featured a week of Toho giant monster films. These, along with the Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia, were event movies. I learned from watching movies that my father also had a soft spot, enjoying The Trouble with Angels and Agnes of God, but enjoying them alone and sharing his enjoyment after the fact. If I did not learn to watch movies alone from him, I certainly continued doing so, never feeling the need for company either when watching at home or in the theater.
Without much direct advice about how to live life, I learned from what teachers I could find. Mr. O’Connor, my eighth grade history teacher, taught me not to swear, and that police work was valuable; he was a former police officer. Mrs. Vandergrift, my fifth grade homeroom teacher, taught me about kindness and to value my academic achievements. But as far as the calculus of adult life, I learned from literature and from movies. Literature, like The Catcher in the Rye or Billy Budd, taught me about the pitfalls of adult life. Perhaps it is not so strange there there is very little in literature that reassuringly implies, “Everything is going to be all right.” There was even less in the literature I read for school about love. For love, I turned to film, or rather, film found me. I was a willing student.
The movies I will write about are not my favorite movies, with one exception. They are movies that stayed with me, like shadowy guides, for years. I feel their influence even now, in some cases I fight against them, the way one might struggle with a parent long after he or she has died. We are never truly done with the past. And so, I will revisit these films, neither to praise them nor to bury them, but to think about them and what I learned from them about love.
Are these the best depictions of love in the movies? Hardly. Nor are they the truest depictions. They simply stood out to me. Beyond that I had only two simple rules for their selection. First, I had to see each one first on television. All but one of these I watched alone the first time I saw it, with the exception being My Fair Lady, an event movie to be sure. Second I had to see each before I was 17, before I became an adult, and before I said the words “I love you” to a woman. Whether I like it or not, every time I have said those words, from the time I was 17 until now, when I am 57, “I love you” is an echo of something I saw in these films. For better and for worse.
The April Fools
Two for the Road
What’s Up Doc
My Fair Lady