When we were thirteen or so, my buddy Patrick and I decided to go see three movies in one night. This didn’t seem very daunting to me, as I was already an expert at sitting around and consuming a lot of entertainment in dark rooms. Pat was going places, though. He was serious about baseball (his dad had been a pro ball player) and when he wasn’t playing ball, he was always engaged in some kind of structured activity.
Pat never went pro, by the way, but according to a quick internet search, he did eventually become a well-respected surgeon. I’m also happy to report that he is married to a beautiful woman and has two or three lovely kids. I, meanwhile, am still sitting in dark rooms, daydreaming, wasting time. My fortieth birthday is in a few days and I don’t feel a hell of a lot more mature than I did that night we went to the theater. My body has sure as hell aged, though.
But back to the story...
Because we were too young to drive, my dad drove us to the theater and dropped us off there. It was one of those giant white stone elephants owned by Loews that used to be everywhere, and are becoming rarer and rarer these days. I suspect that soon regular multiplexes will suffer the same fate endured by drive-ins. And, much like the giant malls anchoring the ghosts of shopping plazas, they’ll end up razed to rubble or left vacant, haunted and crumbling temples from another time.
I saw a lot of movies in that theater, and while a small moviehouse is probably more conducive to nostalgia, I have good memories of that popcorn-smelling palace. I can still vividly recall its ocean of sky blue carpet stellated with little golden dots, and the glowing videogame cabinets lined up along the wall.
I played my first game of Mortal Kombat there, ripped my first beating heart from the ribcage of my conquered foe before an assemblage of praying warrior monks. Ah, memories.
Pat and I had decided that we would only buy tickets for the first movie, after which we would theater hop on our single ticket for the next two features. This wasn’t as bad as sneaking in, but we were middleclass kids who went to a Catholic school, and it gave our little evening that extra illicit frisson.
The first movie we saw that night was Road To Wellville, an odd, offbeat look at the life of health nut homeopath John Kellogg and his sanitorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. The movie was directed by Alan Parker, who had a demonstrable knack for large music-based productions (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Fame). He also directed the darkly brilliant Angel Heart, adapted from William Hjortsberg’s incomparable supernatural PI novel. But at the time that hardly mattered to us. For we didn’t really think about the auteur behind the lens.
And because Road to Wellville wasn’t that good, we didn’t even think much about the film as it played out on the screen. That said, there were a couple memorable moments in the movie. Like when the man in need of rest and relaxation (played by Matthew Broderick) hallucinates one of the nurses in her Florence Nightingale cap and gown as stark naked. As I remember it, she had a perfectly-toned, evenly tanned supple body, her breast and buttocks perched equally high on her shapely frame.
The internet existed back in those days, of course, but I don’t think either one of us had it, or used it much except for school research projects. Naturally, then, the sight of a naked woman doing nothing but being naked was still a wonder to behold. I miss those days.
There was only one other good thing about this crapfest of a movie that I can remember at this great remove. And that was when Kellogg’s son, rebelling against the regimen of fiber and cod liver oil, sits at the dinner table, banging his fork and knife on the tabletop. “Meat and potatoes!” he shouts, over and over again, stubborn and unwilling to submit to his tyrannical father’s dictates.
After that night, the chant became something of an inside joke between Pat and me. We would burst out with it spontaneously, or sometimes when it was warranted, as in the cafeteria at school. Any time the sour-faced ladies in their hairnets served us something not to our liking, out it came, the protest accompanied by the clack of our plastic trays.
Meat and potatoes! Meat and potatoes!
Eventually, mercifully, The Road to Wellville ended. We left the theater and went out into the hall, staring down the corridor that separated the theaters from the lobby. Through the plate glass window at the front of the cineplex we could see the last rays of the setting sun highlighting the gold woven into carpet. We let our eyes and minds adjust to the dreamless day world, blinking and walking around on legs rubbery and tingling with sleep needles.
Then it was on to Picture Two, Interview with a Vampire.
Again, I knew nothing about Neil Jordan at the time, but I would later grow to greatly admire his The Butcher Boy. I think he even wrote a novel or two, in addition to being a fine director. His greatest crossover hit, The Crying Game, about a man who falls in love with a transsexual, proved popular enough to merit a reference in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. (Spoiler alert: Finkel is Einhorn. Einhorn is Finkel).
Interview with a Vampire was much more our speed. Also, at that time I’d already read a Lestat novel or two, along with some Crichton and King (Cujo, I think). But that, and a sprinkling of Joseph Wambaugh, constituted my only flirtations with adult literature up to that point.
Interview was dark, both in tone and in literal color scheme. Its sepia and mahogany palette sometimes blanched nearer to black and white so that it felt like a silent Murnau movie, full of ever-lengthening shadows and ever-retreating light. There were naked women galore, as well as a more sophisticated sensuousness lost on our young brains, which processed the sex but not the death. We hardly needed titillation, though, to sustain our interest. The spell of the movie worked on us and the rest of the packed house.
We were taken in by the sumptuous decay of New Orleans, its gingerbread fretwork of old buildings crawling with ivy, riverboats floating dreamily on the Mississippi dark as molasses. We were intrigued by the way the vampire seduced Christian Slater, the journalist/audience surrogate, into hearing his story, even though he feared the vampire and found him repulsive.
There were also some genuinely moving scenes in the film, too, as when the child vampire, cursed to remain forever in her tiny body, finally rebelled against her state. Her father, Lestat, attempted to bribe her with a menagerie of expensive porcelain dolls in silk dresses. But it wasn’t enough, and in the end she cast aside the childish things in a haunting, shriek-filled tantrum that culminated with her banging discordantly on some piano keys.
I can’t remember what precipitated her death, only that the vampires held some kind of quorum in an ancient Gothic theater, then passed sentence on her and her mother. Woman and child were left in some pit, exposed to sunlight where they shrieked, sizzled, turned to cinders that then exploded into powdery drifts of the finest stone.
After Vampire we walked out into the hall again. Our legs were even heavier with sleep, the world on the other side of the glass cold and black, and presumably filled with vampires. I was smiling, still game, enchanted by the idea of not only seeing three movies in one evening, but maybe doing this every Friday night. Looking over at Pat, though, I saw that he was already a little weary of it, that he strained for the outside world, fresh night air, sports. Life itself, dammit.
Already a small chasm had grown up between us, but it hardly mattered. In a year or two I would be close to completely withdrawn into myself. Then that chasm wouldn’t just exist between me and my friend, but between me and the entire world.
And it would only grow larger as more time passed.
That, however, was still a ways into the future.
The last movie on the list was Pulp Fiction.
We weren’t ready for it.
For Xillenials— that weird group between the overeducated, underemployed types Kevin Smith showcased in Clerks, and the kids who would grow up knowing nothing but the internet and 9-11--Pulp Fiction was a bit like our Star Wars. Something about it sunk in with us, scarred and impressed itself upon us in just the right way at just the right time.
The film started innocuously enough, with a couple sitting at a table in a diner having coffee. Then, out of nowhere, the woman stood up in her vinyl booth, brandishing a big iron, threatening everyone in the restaurant with a string of expletives.
Cue the frenetic Dick Dale surfer guitar.
Something about the cussing—not just the basic transgression, which was enough for us kids—let us know we were in for something different. It was the creativity of the foulness that made us sit up in our seats and take notice in a way we hadn’t until then.
Roger Ebert claims that when he first saw Pulp Fiction, he knew he was either seeing the best movie of the year or the worst one. But Pat and I knew from the jump that it was the best.
I won’t recount the whole plot, just say that we sat there, in awe, exchanging looks, unable to quite believe what we were seeing. People were onscreen talking, arguing, debating bits of pop culture trivia, making references to real world things like Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with Cheese. They weren’t staring into the camera, but the way they were referencing the real world somehow felt like a great and exciting new way to break the proscenium arch.
Watching John Travolta and jheri-curled Sam Jackson argue about the merits of foot massages was somehow more entertaining than watching a building blow up in a massive action extravaganza. Seeing a man subtly intimidate another man, eating his Big Kahuna Burger, drinking his soda through a straw as if sucking his soul, was better than a sex scene.
And here’s the thing: all of that other, more traditional spectacle was in there. There were car wrecks, shootouts, plenty of violence, and a sophisticated kind of sexual patter between Bruce Willis and his girlfriend that left Pat and I stunned. Girls were totally mysterious to us, and women entirely sacred and alien. If we ever talked about sex, it was immature, secondhand crass macho porn crap passed down from older brothers, designed to conceal our fear of the unknown. And here we were, riveted by a diminutive woman talking about how a potbelly on a female is pleasurable to the touch, but makes a man appear apelike.
Pulp Fiction had pulled back some kind of curtain, like Sunset Boulevard letting fans peek at the reality of movie stars, or The Godfather letting crowds see power exercised in all its genuine ugliness. Tarantino wasn’t patronizing us. He was one of us. Or at least Tarantino had been someone like us, who went to the video store (and even worked at one) and once read comic books. He had Kevin Smith’s encyclopedic mind for pop culture but arranged it in Pulp Fiction so even those who didn’t know the world secondhand could admire and believe it. The wildest scenes had the quality of crazy but real-life incidents, either witnessed or recalled, by a master raconteur.
Even as you saw it on the screen, you heard it being told (I guess that’s why he called it Pulp Fiction.)
Did I ever tell you, Tarantino seemed to say, about the time me and my buddy were trapped in a pawnshop with this leather gimp?
For the first time, Pat and I became aware that someone made movies, that the words coming out of the actors’ mouths had not been written by committee. Neither, though, had the words been written by a novelist and later adapted by a screenwriter. It had all been written by just one guy, and solely for the screen.
And that one guy who wrote all those words also just happened to be behind the camera the entire time.
Each generation discovers that dialogue is an art, a constant volley to keep a ball in play, in their own manner. Hundreds of years ago they had Shakespeare. Later generations had to content themselves with a Mamet or Woody Allen. Tarantino might be even further down the trough (the cinematic equivalent of Stephen King’s quote about being the “Big Mac and fries of literature” comes to mind.) But damn it was tasty, anyway, especially for our starved palates that had been deprived even the meagerest fare up until that night.
After that, Pat and I wanted to make movies. We talked about it quite a bit, and we may have even written a raggedy-ass script or two. But we never had the balls to pick up a camera (even a camcorder), to try and thereby risk failing.
It hardly mattered, though. My destiny was not to make movies, to collaborate with another two hundred or so professionals to bring my singular vision to the screen. My destiny was to sit alone in a room and pound the keys.
Pat, of course, was destined for happiness, which may be a hell of a lot better than making movies, or writing books, or painting.
I still have a soft spot for Pulp Fiction, and I dug Once upon a Time in Hollywood, but somewhere along the way I stopped following Tarantino. Still, he was for our generation a bit like Scorsese was for the previous one. Quentin’s fellow Gen Xers will bridle at that comparison (which, admittedly, can only be carried so far). But that’s mostly because he is their contemporary, and professional jealousy comes into play there in a way it doesn’t with an eminence grise like Martin Scorsese.
Pat and I never went back to the theater after that, not to see three movies in a row, or, for that matter, even one movie. And maybe that’s for the best. Six hours and some change is a long time to spend in the dark, even for someone who’s as comfortable with darkness as I.
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