The dark, smoldering eyes I notice first, peeking out from under a misshapen pile of bargain DVDs. It is Doctor Zhivago. On impulse I buy it. For some reason I feel it belongs in that bookcase of movies we never watch.
And then I realize why this movie. If James Garner was my mother’s nice-boy crush, Omar Sharif was the bad boy. Not infrequently she mentioned his magnetic, brooding eyes. Somewhere I filed this away in that place where movies and memories intersect. Doctor Zhivago fires up a synapse reacquainting long-dormant neurons.
Throughout my life – and yours, if you love movies, too – all sorts of such connections exist. It’s the reason we watch movies over and over, or collect them. A bridge to another time and place. The reason we revisit or cherish anything, I suppose.
Sometimes a movie can even remind you who you are, or were, or who you are supposed to be.
And then I think, what other movies might I pull from this same $2.99 bargain bin were they there?
Mind you, this isn’t intended to be all-inclusive or a list of “Best” anything. Just a handful of selected milestones in one person’s life in which a not-insignificant amount of time has been spent at the movies.
The Deer Hunter
They had me at I love you, baby. A group of friends who’ve grown up together in the Pennsylvania steel town of Clairton rejoice at the sound of the mill’s quitting-time bell. Soon they’re at their favorite tavern pounding down Rolling Rocks and singing along with Frankie Valli.
I love you, baby, And if it’s quite alright, I need you, baby, To warm a lonely night. I love you, baby. Trust in me when I say…
You have the sense you’re seeing something fragile, soon to be forever lost. And indeed you are, because these boys are bound for Vietnam. Much of what comes next for Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage), both at war and at home, is hard to watch.
I saw this movie many times sophomore year of college. When you’re young and you have a small crew of friends who know all your secrets, these are the films that resonate. We knew the dialogue by heart, of course, and we subjected each other, girlfriends, acquaintances, and on occasion perfect strangers to our recitations of various pivotal scenes.
“Stanley, see this? This is this. This ain’t something else. This is this.”
Much of the movie was filmed not 100 miles away, in towns we knew. Many things were familiar to us. But so much was not. Mike, Nick and Steve were the boys we knew or heard about from home. The ones a few years older than us, the ones who went to war.
The Deer Hunter is not an anti-war film, but it does provide an unflinching view of war, and the way it can mar the psyches of those who fight. It is also about friendship and commitment, and about cherishing what you have, while you have it.
“A man who says no to champagne says no to life.”
I fell in love with my wife the day she told me that Cinema Paradiso was her favorite movie. To me, the simple admission spoke volumes.
In 1940s Sicily, a village movie house projectionist, Alfredo, takes a troubled six-year-old boy under his wing. He makes a place for young Salvatore in the booth where he shows movies for the townspeople each weekend. There’s a priest who screens and censors the movies, sitting with a little bell at the ready. Every time we come upon a scene too racy for the Church – any scene in which people kiss – the bell rings, the movie stops and the offending images are cut from the film reel and tossed aside.
They are kindred spirits, Alfredo and Salvatore, and the heart of the film is the bond between the young assistant and his adopted father. As Salvatore grows to be a young man, he falls for a local girl named Elena, but the romance is not without complications.
It is sad and sweet and I think it is safe to say that anyone with a love of movies will adoreCinema Paradiso very much. At one point, we see a montage of the deleted kissing scenes, from the great, classic movies of the era, and it is nothing short of magical.
Watch it with someone you care for, or someone you want to get to know better. But if you do check out Cinema Paradiso, I recommend the original version, not the three-hour Director’s Cut (Apologies to writer-director Guiseppe Tornatore, upon whose life this story is based, but dude, it was fine as is).
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
I’ve never figured out if Steven Spielberg has some sixth sense about what’s “trending” in people’s minds, or if his movies just start a national conversation of which we all become a part.
Obsession with strange lights in the sky was at a peak with Close Encounters came out in 1977. Or maybe it was just me, as I have always been a geek about such things. I can debate both sides of the Fermi Paradox and the E.T. Hypothesis, contrast Project Bluebook with Project Sign, even help you connect the dots between J. Allen Hynek, Vannevar Bush and the 1952 UFO Wave over Washington.
I was a high school senior when I heard this film was being made, and by the time it reached my local theater, it was if I myself had the five tones burned into my brain.
“Watch the skies please… We now show uncorrelated targets approaching from the north-northwest…”
But none of that matters, really, because Close Encounters is just a darned good movie. I know of no other that captures the essence of pure wonder, or the enduring allure of an unsolvable mystery. Now and then, remembering what those things feel like is important.
And where else can you get dialogue like this?
“Down a major third…Up a perfect fifth… She sent us four quavers, a group of five quavers, a group of four semi-quavers…”
A shame this movie is often labeled mere “science fiction,” because it is a very human story of an everyman driven by a vision he didn’t ask to receive, and then compelled, at great personal cost, to find an answer. Roy Neary, as brought to life by Richard Dreyfuss, is each of us, just wanting to know who and why.
I should warn you that repeated viewings may produce an uncontrollable compulsion to visit Devil’s Tower, Wyoming (omg you should go, just off I-90 and it is AWESOME).
“Listen to me Major Walsh! It is an event sociological!”
Last Tango in Paris
I’ve never seen this movie, but bear with me. In 1973, when I was 14, I had an epic crush on my eighth grade English teacher, Miss Snyder. Her name was Allison. She was a couple of years out of college, I suppose, a glamorous and mysterious older woman.
She had long, auburn hair, dark eyes, a cross between Ann-Margret and Audrey Hepburn. Allison’s lips pursed in the cutest way when she was pensive or angry, not unlike a young Elizabeth Taylor.
If I said something in class that made Allison laugh, I was euphoric. If I missed a homework assignment and Allison scolded me, I was devastated. At age 14, a crush can consume every waking thought, color perceptions, fog the mind. If you see a 14-year-old walking around in this state, treat them kindly.
I came to believe that Allison and I bonded during a class discussion about movies and current events. She asked the class if anyone knew “the name of a controversial movie that has been in the news, an art film starring Marlon Brando. ”
In the corner, Mike Carrier’s hand shot up. “The Godfather!” he said. “No,” Allison replied. “Anyone” The room fell silent. My heart raced. “Anyone?”
I heard myself say “Last Tango in Paris. It was Last Tango… in Paris.” Allison smiled. I smiled. It was exciting that Allison and I were the only two people in the room who shared knowledge of the naughty art film generating Oscar buzz.
Like I said, never did see the movie.
In Ordinary People, the incident is the seemingly trivial action of a cold and troubled mother named Beth Jarrett, played by Mary Tyler Moore. Her teenaged son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) says he isn’t hungry, so she snatches away his breakfast plate and dumps its contents down the garbage disposal.
“You can’t save French toast.”
It’s emblematic of their relationship, or what’s left of it, upon the death of Conrad’s brother, Buck. You see, Buck was the favorite. Handsome, athletic, outgoing. Now she is left with Conrad, too weak, self-destructive and full of doubt to ever take his place.
Conrad blames himself for Buck’s death, which happens when the two brothers are caught in a storm on Lake Michigan. Their boat capsizes, and Buck drowns.
Eventually we learn why Conrad cannot forgive himself. After Buck is swept away and lost, Conrad hangs on to the boat. This act of self-preservation is too much to bear.
Watching a movie at age 20 is a very different experience than watching the same movie at 40 or 50. But Ordinary People always leaves me with the same thoughts.
When I first saw it, I was just learning about loss and how it can affect a family. As somber and dark as this story was, I found its message, especially its conclusion, more about hope than despair, and it came to mean something to me.
Imagining a brighter future is not just a good trait to have. As it turns out, it is everything.
Because life can and does blow up storms. And anyone who has been around a while can tell you. It’s all about hanging on to the boat.
This essay originally written for my friend Ree Drummond’s food-lifestyle-entertainment website, ThePioneerWoman.com – Check out her television show on The Food Network – http://www.foodnetwork.com/ree-drummond/