Pauline Kael, who reviewed movies for The New Yorker for many years, was considered by many to be the goddess of film critics. Her comments on movies were both insightful and controversial. Once again, a compendium of her reviews is coming out in a newly published book.
Her writings were distinguished by her sharp opinions. When she was negative about the quality of a film, she was downright lethal. When she was positive, she was ecstatic. But whatever her thoughts were about films, her enduring view was that movies were transformative, important, and, in some cases, life changing.
On the surface, such a conclusion might seem, to say the least, exaggerated and over expansive. Indeed, how many times have I heard it said: "It's only a movie."
Years ago, I might have dismissed her opinion, but after a very long, personal retrospective on the impact of movies on my own life, I'm inclined to see her point.
The effect that movies have had on my life, psyche, worldview, relationship with people, knowledge of the human condition, hopes and fears, emulations and aspirations, romanticism, speech, general appearance, taste in clothing, courting, sex, travel, yearnings and ambitions has been profound. There is no denying it.
Note: I am talking of the overall effect of movies, not individual movies, per se. This is not to say that individual movies have not affected my life, but the cumulative, overall, dominant effect has been transformative in deep ways and in some that I can barely imagine or explain.
How could it not? Historically speaking, I have been attending movies regularly since the middle thirties, which marked the rich golden years of Hollywood. At that time, studios owned the theaters. They churned out hundreds of films a year, creating the stars, sets and stories that captured our imagination and drove us into darkened auditoriums to peer through a window into a world beyond our own existence.
For a child growing up in that era, the Saturday matinee was almost an obligatory rite of passage. Movie theaters were easily accessible and showed movies created for all ages, reflective of our times and times past. For ten cents, we would spend about three hours mesmerized and immersed in the film's skillfully imagined activities.
My senses are in total recall of those moments spent in the movie palaces of those years. The sweet smell of candy from the vending machine (in the days before popcorn became the profitable staple of movie going), the baroque design of the movie houses, the uniformed usher with his ubiquitous flashlight, the iconic beginning of the News of the Week and the sonorous voice of Lowell Thomas and the coming attractions of new movies changed twice or sometimes thrice weekly.
I recall the cartoons of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other animated favorites and the shouts of joy when they appeared on the screen, the "chapters" of Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon and others and the antics of Charlie Chaplin, the three stooges, W.C. Fields and the Ritz Brothers.
Who can forget the cowboys of that era with indelible names that have never faded from memory, such as Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Hoot Gibson, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and numerous others along with the names of their horses? I spent many days riding make-believe horses (which were my grandparents' porch railings), imagining myself as a hard-riding, quick-on-the-draw cowboy hero.
At times, the Saturday movies for kids were hybrids of what adults might be seeing that same evening. At those movies, when the action stopped and the mild love scenes would come on, the kids in the audience would erupt with restlessness and throw spitballs, shout and tussle until the action scenes started again.
The movie-going habits of those years have continued throughout my life, although my ritual of movie-going has changed with the nature of the films being offered, which seem to deeply curtail the adult demographic.
As for Pauline Kael's sense of the transformative impact of films, it is validated by my own experiences revisiting the films in black and white on contemporary television, especially those run by Turner Classic Films. These old films have rejuvenated and enriched a world whose images can be recalled from their etched vaults in my mind and memory.
I need no further proof of the transformative nature of their impact than my almost total recall of the cast names of movies well before the crawls of identification. Not only can I name all the featured actors and secondary players in my favorite films, but I find myself obsessed with the familiar backgrounds, the clothes, the furniture, the gadgets, the kitchen appliances, the lighting, the ubiquitous smoking, the dialogue, especially those slang remarks that have gone out of fashion and the general atmosphere and environment of the world of my past. Indeed, I often wish I could just walk into these sets and return to the life of my youth with the expectation that my mother has dinner on the table and my Dad has just come home from a day at the office.
At times, these images are competitive with what passes for real life. Perhaps I exaggerate, but they did have the power to make me laugh and cry, worry and hope, yearn and mourn, revel and disappoint. They enriched my imagination and gave me clues to the secrets of suspense and storytelling.
If this is what Pauline Kael meant about being transformative, then she did indeed get it right. She wrote a book with a winking double entendre entitled "I Lost it at the Movies." If I wrote it I would have changed the title to: "I Found it at the Movies."
Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include The War of the Roses, Random Hearts and the PBS trilogy The Sunset Gang. He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's Website at www.warrenadler.com.
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