Growing up with the Movies

My father worked at a mail order novelty company. Customers could by things like artificial doggy doo, soap that would turn your hands and face black, X-ray glasses, cheap magic tricks, and custom imprinted pencils.  My father operated the pencil machine that stamped words on wood, like Club Apache.  When I was in the second grade he brought home a 16mm projector from the mail order company that was a small toy of a machine that used an ordinary light bulb.  It projected a dim image on the wall and my recollection is that it had no shutter so there was a lot of travel ghost — but it didn’t matter. 

The movies, cut-down versions of Mascot or Monogram features, came on either 25- or 50-foot spools, and I had half a dozen of them.  I loved that projector, and I invited friends over to show them the movies. My favorite was an apocalyptic cowboy film that ended with the town going up in flames as the hero and heroine held each other, looking on at the conflagration, saying via a title card: “We’ll build together.”  These words and shot have stayed in my mind as I’ve had the growing realization that mankind is making a wilderness out of civilization.

I became interested in building my own opaque projector after I went to a science fair and saw one that a girl had built.  It was easy to copy; I needed a 40- or 60-watt light bulb and a shoebox lined with aluminum foil, and a cardboard tube – a toilet roll tube – with a magnifying glass in it. Big downside:  My mother objected to my disposing of an entire roll of toilet paper to get to the tube.  I could project pictures that I drew, on a screen a few feet across in a dark room.  The images were reasonably bright and to my eyes good quality.  I became interested in optics, and movies, and 3-D – lifelong passions.  I built multiple projector rigs, and reinvented cell animation with a foreground and background.  I liked to project rear screen on buttered paper to increase the brightness of the image. I flew spaceships across rocky planetary scenes one a screen that was a semicircle influenced by the Hayden Planetarium’s projection on a domed screen.

I loved the old Hayden Planetarium. I’ve been to the new one at the Museum of Natural History and all the charm is gone – the charm of a stolid red brick turn-of-the-century planetarium with dingy inner sanctum hallways and the colossal eggbeater-like Zeiss contraption that projected stars on the dome. It now feels just like a theme park ride, another example of the homogenization of the culture and the triumph of Walt Disney. It’s been replaced with a new sleek Zeiss contraption that is anti-charismatic.

Going to the movies wasn’t the only way to see movies.  When I was 12 we got a TV set, Bakelite brown with a circular cornered foot wide screen.  I watched a show on WOR called Million Dollar Movie.  For one week they played the same movie in the same time slot over and over.  On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday I could watch King Kong – and I did; The original King Kong,  so many times that I practically memorized it.

My father died when I was 12, and my mother remarried, about a year after, and within a year or so we moved to Flushing, Long Island.  Afterwards my movie going experiences were mainly at the Flushing Theater on Main Street.  I’ve been back to Flushing a couple of times and the Theater is gone.  Flushing is now an interesting Chinese neighborhood.  I read somewhere that it has the largest Chinese population outside of China.  My friends and I went to the Flushing Theater since it was just a walk down Kissena Boulevard to Main Street and we also went to Manhattan to see movies in the movie palaces. The woods where we played and the abandoned farmhouse we called McDonald’s farm are gone, replaced by apartment houses inhabited by Chinese people.

In New York City after college my first job was working for Time Inc.  I lived in Manhattan and it was a great place for anybody who loves movies.  There were a lot of movie theaters, some of which were open 24 hours a day.  (But Los Angeles is truly movie going paradise.) I remember fondly the Toho Cinema which was on the west side not far above Broadway.  It was essentially a small private screening room with a box office.  Often I was the only person in attendance.  I saw Kurosawa movies – Yojimbo and its sequel, Sanjuro.  I became enamored of the determined, enigmatic and charismatic characters played by Toshiro Mifune.  In film after film, he reluctantly helped the underdog, and got pissed at the stupidity of these weak peasants who fell into the clutches of evildoers.  Yet he couldn’t help himself; he had to help them and he fought for justice.  He was a knight, a samurai.

Mifune’s warrior had interesting mannerisms.  He’d scratch the back of his head and he had a shoulder tick.  Only the other day I discovered the precursor of Kurosawa’s samurai movies, Sanshiro Sugata (I’ve only seen part II) which was made in 1945 and is set in 1898.  It’s the story of a judo expert played by an actor named Susumu Fujita, who looks and acts a lot like Mifune, but he’s far less expressive.  Susumu Fujita has one of the same characteristics a Mifune — rubbing his head.  That makes me think that this was a Kurosawa touch.  Sugata’s mission is to preserve Japanese martial arts and that has a special meaning in the aftermath of the atomic bombs that had just been dropped on Japan.  Kurosawa was making a movie that was set in 1898 with had lots of American extras and the highlight of the movie is the judo expert fighting a U.S. boxing champ. The judo expert nearly kills the boxer, which must have been satisfying for Japanese audiences.

I would also go to the Museum of Modern Art film screenings.  I had a date with a young lady who I cannot remember at all.  We met at the theater, and she was babysitting a young boy.  The boy, who must have been 10 or 11, was James Agee’s son.  Afterwards we walked downtown with him.  I can’t remember the movie we saw, but I suppose it was a horror movie because I the boy imitated Frankenstein’s monster. He became the monster, in that strange, stiff walk that people use, with arms outstretched – although my recollection is that Karloff had his arms at his sides, with the fingers outstretched.  It’s odd how everybody who mimes the monster walks with the arms out in front, like a sleepwalker.

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