Recently, a coworker of mine, who has an interest in film, asked me to compile a list of “essential viewing” for him and his kids. He said, “I used to think I had tons of time with my kids, but that’s an illusion. One of mine is already a surly teenager and another is on the cusp. Yikes!” So of course, I had to help. He knows my own interest in film, and we had talked back and forth, really just “have you seen this?” and name dropping actors. You know, conversations that only the biggest of film buffs could engage. But the phrase, “essential viewing” really stuck with me. What did he mean by “essential”? What do I mean by “essential”? His question made me think about my connection to film, and where it all started. As a sappy sentimentalist, I vividly recall all my film firsts. Rather than make another listicle, and copy and paste the comprehensive list I gave to my coworker; I think it would be better to delve into the nostalgia of certain films and the flood of memories they bring back.
My connection to film started with my dad. He had a film minor in college, and ran the projector form the film club on campus. Film was always a passion for him, and a passion that he hoped to pass down. Lucky for him, he was gifted with the most dramatic, and imaginative daughter. My flair for the dramatics was best captivated by the movies he loved as it was a great way for us to bond and share something special. He had sports with my brother, and movies with me. My favorite movie ever is Singing’ in the Rain, and I remember so clearly the first time I saw it. I watched it with my dad. I also remember by the third time I decided I was going to write a review of it! And I remember exactly what I wrote “good opening, pretty colors and cloths” because I couldn’t spell clothes or costumes. Short, sweet, and to the point, that’s all I wrote for a review because I was just sucked into the story. I loved Singin’ in the Rain so much, I decided I wanted to be an actress, just like Debbie Reynolds’ character, Cathy. I subsequently named all my female stuffed animals Cathy after my initial viewing.
One summer as a special treat, my dad bought us tickets to a screening of Singin’ in the Rain, at The Orpheum, a historic theatre in Memphis. I finally got to see my favorite movie the way the cinema gods intended. We got all dressed up, and arrived in style. I did my best to look like a movie star. I raided my grandmother’s box of dress up clothes to make my designer ensemble. We had the best seats in the house, right next to each other. And I watched, eyes wide as my favorite people in the world started singing and dancing on the big screen. They were giants on that screen. It was so surreal to hear people laugh at all the jokes. I had heard them a million times over and could quote it with my eyes shut. But people laughed anytime Lena Lamont, the squeaky voiced starlet, appeared on screen. I didn’t understand. I hated Lena! She was the bad guy, why was everyone laughing at her. My dad told me it was because not everyone had seen this movie before. They didn’t know any better, he said. I nodded in solemn understanding; I wouldn’t spoil it for them. I’d keep my mouth shut, and let them enjoy the movie. After all, it was only fair.
Of course films connect us to people. For example, growing up, I thought that The Godfather, was literally about my family. My family on my mother’s side was Italian-American out of New York. I never knew my grandfather because he died when I was very young. As an Italian-American, I was raised in the church and I had a godfather, and so did my brother, and all of my cousins. So, when anyone said “The Godfather”, I was always so confused; which of our godfathers were the adults talking about? Always when I asked my grandmother about her parents, or growing up in New York, instead of answering me; she’d call The Godfather, the family history. As a beautiful naive babe I took her at her word. This lie was further cemented in my mind by my brother. My dad always wore suits to work, my brother thought it was because he was in the mafia. And of course, as older brothers do, he told me one day that our dad was mafia and made me promise not to tell anyone else under penalty of death. One day my dad picked us up from school, his arm in a sling and my brother started sobbing. “Dad’s been shot!” he cried to me. And I knew it was because of my dad’s job. He gave some flimsy excuse about slipping on a patch of ice in our driveway, but my brother and I knew the truth. And we couldn’t tell anyone or else they might finish the job. It wasn’t until later, much later, when I was around ten or eleven, did I finally realize The Godfather was a movie, later on a film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel. To be clear I didn’t make that discovery on my own. I said something dumb about how The Godfather was the family history at a family dinner and watched to my embarrassment while everyone laughed at me. I could have died in that moment. Embarrassing yourself in front of your family means you’ll never live it down; but I’m glad I said it. In The Godfather, I had a connection to my deceased grandfather, and an inside joke with my family. Anytime I watch the movie, or listen to the soundtrack on my grandmother’s vinyl, I think of how happy my family was when they all laughed at me. Here’s to Don Giovanni and his beautiful wife Ellen, may they rest in peace.
But again, what makes a movie “essential”? While making the list, I started to divvy it up into two categories. Movies to inspire creativity, and imagination, and widely recognized classics. I realized that’s not a fair binary. I had The Princess Bride under classics and The Iron Giant under inspirational movies. They’re both classics and they both inspire said values. The Iron Giant inspires friendship, and compassion while teaching kids to be good, and how to be a hero. But it’s also a classic! It’s an homage to 1950s sci-fye, hello The Day The Earth Stood Still, anyone? It’s the Cold War and the Space Race with a unidentified robot. It was the only movie my brother and I could agree on when picking out a movie.
And as for The Princess Bride, of course it’s a classic. It’s inconceivable to regard it as anything else! But it’s a fairy tale romance about a princess and a rogue, of course it inspires imagination! I loved that it was a bed time story, and the story was filtered through the grandson’s imagination. We see what he sees in his imagination as his grandfather skips over the kissy parts. I loved watching this movie and pretending I was Princess Buttercup. Also how cool is it that she shares the name of my favorite Powerpuff girl. It’s fate.
Now these are just two that really stick out in my mind, probably because I wore the VHS tapes out watching these movies again and again. Two very special movies got the royal treatment at my grandmother’s house. Yes the one who lied to this very impressionable dummy. Every Christmas, we’d watch the same two movies. Home Alone, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. My grandmother had a VHS re-winder, and while we watched Home Alone, we’d rewind the Home Alone 2. Once Home Alone finished, the tapes would switch and we’d watch the sequal. And we’d do this for hours and hours, just watching the same two movies in her movie theatre. (It was her living room with all the lights out, two lamps on, the doors closed, and all the adults in the other room.) My cousins and I would run around quoting the movie to each other and laughing hysterically because our Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci bit was spot on.
I know this all sounds like a random collection of anecdotes, and yes, these are; but that’s what movies are. Random collections of stories, woven together to make a cohesive piece. The cohesive piece here, is me. I wanted to share with you all, my connection to film. How I become involved and immersed in the world of movie magic. To me film is the intimate and connection and relationship I have to my family, and specifically my dad. Films are such a highly evocative medium. One that is now is so readily available for our consumption. So you have to preserve your rituals to keep the magic alive. I shared Singin‘ in the Rain with my boyfriend recently; and of course it holds up. Now it has an even stronger emotional aspect, and the magic grows more powerful. When I go home I still watch the same movies, now on DVD or Netflix, in my grandmother’s theatre. But above all, anytime I watch a new movie, I make sure my dad watches it, so we can talk about it, and share them. Indulging in your feelings of nostalgia isn’t a bad thing. Sure you can be blinded by nostalgia glasses, but that’s okay. That’s what movies are for; to evoke emotions, and nostalgia is one of the most powerful. Let it overwhelm you. I can’t wait to hear how my list goes over with my coworker’s kids. I hope that I’ve passed along the ritual to a father in need.