Self-Portrait as a 1970s Cineplex Movie Theater by Steve Fellner
It all starts with a single mystery.
And then another. And another. And then another.
I can still remember seeing my mother crying as Agatha’s ending credits rolled. My mother said, “My tragic flaw: I hold no mystery.”
Agatha is biopic that offers a theory as to what happened to the mystery writer Agatha Christie during her 11-day disappearance in 1926. Some said it was a kidnapping. Others a mere publicity stunt. Most recently, it’s been said it was a result of amnesia, a psychogenic trance. Agatha claims that she left to plot the murder of her philanderer husband. “Not everything revolves around a man,” my mother said.
Good parenting, my mother believed, was solving any stupid mystery. Sex only causes trouble. Death is a bore. A story always needs many ends.
I was obsessed with the title song to Ben. It has a young Michael Jackson crooning lyrics like “We both found what we were looking for. With a friend to call my own, I’ll never be alone…” And, “I used to say I and me, now it’s us, now it’s we.” I knew the lyrics by heart.
There was a man I loved. I didn’t know how to tell him I loved him. His name was Ben, too. It was the 90s. Ben was released in the 70s. There was no way he would link the two.
I wrote out all the lyrics and told him that I had written a poem for him. As I read it, he gave me a funny look. “Are you sure you wrote that song?” he said.
“Of course. It took me weeks.”
There was a long pause. “That’s the song from that movie about killer rats. It’s about some loser who has nothing. So he befriends a rat. A rat. Is his only friend,” he enunciated that last part very, very slowly.
“Really?” I said.
“Really,” he said. “You know what? I don’t get with liars.” He walked out of my apartment.
The next day, there was a cage covered with a sheet on my front porch. I could hear some frantic scraping. It was a rat. And not the pet-store, domesticated kind; it was a back-alley rat, black-furred and crazy with fear. There was a note that said: “LOVE THIS, YOU ASSHOLE!”
When I had my first manic episode, I couldn’t sleep. I tried and tried. I took sleeping pills, listened to music, exercised for hours, drank warm milk, devoured melatonin, whatever it took. I stayed up all night long for three days and watched TV. Once <u>Coma</u> was on. It’s a mystery-thriller revolving around a series of healthy people who mysteriously go brain-dead after minor surgeries.
This was all I could think: They are so lucky. They are so lucky.
I would have done anything to be a victim.
In Deliverance, Burt Reynolds plays a beefy alpha male who is obsessed with seeing the Cahulawassee River before it’s turned into one huge lake. He takes his posse river rafting; they meet various and dangerous people along their way. My favorite one: a deformed, mute banjo kid. Everybody remembers the “squeal like a pig” guy in Deliverance, but the banjo kid, he doesn’t need a catchphrase. He never speaks. He just strums. One of the guys in Reynolds’ crew has his own banjo. They go back and forth and back again, calling and responding to each other for a scene that lasts for over five minutes. You would never expect music to be in a place so remote, so distant.
Once I had a dream and all I could hear were those banjos being strummed, the strain of the strings, and then the death of silence. It’s the one time in my life I wondered if God had spoken to me.
Every Which Way But Loose (1978):
I always wanted to own a pet. The closest thing I’ve ever got was a goldfish. My brother named it Doorbell. Every morning he would get up and feed it. He’d say, “Hi, Doorbell. How are you doing today?” The fish never answered, but that never stopped him from asking the questions.
One day we went and saw Every Which Way But Loose, a star vehicle for Clint Eastwood who plays a tough guy roaming around the American West looking for a lost lover. Of course, the real star of the movie is his best friend, an orangutan named Clyde. Clyde and Eastwood have a perfect comic rapport.
When we got home from the movie, my brother changed the name of his goldfish from Doorbell to Clyde. A few weeks later the fish died. I told my brother it was from natural causes. I lied. I still think the cause of death was identity confusion.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971):
When I saw the movie in high school, I convinced my drama director to do the play. I wanted to be the lead. I wanted to play the role that Zero Mostel made famous. Operatic in nature, always larger than life, I wanted to be Teyve. I wanted to be the ultimate Jewish patriarchal figure who ruled over his family with an iron clad fist, refusing to assimilate.
I didn’t let the fact that I was supposed to be Catholic stop me. If I had to convert to Judaism to get the lead role in the school play, so be it.
The first day of the production I lost my voice. “God isn’t on your side,” my director said. I prayed to God to help me. There was no answer. No voice, no fiddle playing coming from the roof or anywhere else. And, this time, not even a banjo.
The Godfather (1975):
This is a fact: The horse’s head was real. The horse had died and they cut it off and froze it and then brought it to the set. Jesus Christ.
The things people will do for art.
I can never remember anything in the scene other than the horse’s head. Not even the basics, really: I know an Italian Mafioso wakes up to find blood in the sheets and then the wrapped towels at the end of the bed. And then something else happens, and so on and so forth. There are a lot of famous scenes in The Godfather. But all I remember is that head of the horse.
Am I allowed to say it? Once I dreamt that I was the head of the horse. My eyes did not blink. My mouth did not move. All I could feel was the angry freezer burn of the ice.
I remember asking my father to tell me about the birds and the bees. I don’t think I really even cared to hear about sex. I was just curious about the metaphors. Who were the bees and who were the birds? It might have been an obvious correlation, but still. I loved my father. I wanted to hear it from him.
My father looked a little puzzled when I asked the question. He grabbed a newspaper, scanned the movie listings and said, “This one looks good. It’ll tell you more about the birds and the bees than I can.”
H.O.T.S. is a stupid softcore sex comedy that features Danny Bonaduce from The Partridge Family. It also stars three Playboy Playmates. My father told me their names. I couldn’t remember them. In the movie, they were in some kind of sorority and they wore tight shirts and red shorts. (My father later bragged to me regarding his theory about their uniforms. “I think the owners of Hooters must have ripped them off. They’re practically identical.”)
I kept on almost falling asleep during the movie. My father was spellbound. He nudged me a few times because I was snoring too loud.
It was the first time I told my father I was gay.
At that time, I was happy I never had to use the words.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978):
When I was an undergraduate, I rented a videotape of I Spit on Your Grave. The film focuses on a young woman who is raped and beaten by a group of men who she later runs down and kills one-by-one. I’m not sure why I thought it would make a good date movie.
My boyfriend fell asleep during the film. I had to nudge him every so often to keep him from snoring. I was pissed.
I’m a hypocrite. If I fall asleep in a movie, that’s fine. But when someone else does, it infuriates me.
“How could you nod off during that film?” I asked.
“I’d rather not see this kind of shit,” he said. “Something happened to me a long time ago. I never fought back.”
Once he said that, I knew we would never go on another date again. I needed to believe I was the only one who suffered in certain ways. I needed to have a secret. And I didn’t want to share mine. We broke up after that night. I never saw him again.
The Jerk (1979):
My husband’s father died weeks before we started dating. His father’s favorite movie was The Jerk. I had never seen it.
The movie stars Steve Martin as a white idiot who is an adopted son of a black family of Mississippian sharecroppers. When he comes to the realization that he is tone-deaf, he is forced to face the fact that he doesn’t belong and sets out on his own adventures to find love and success.
I watch my husband watch the movie. He tells me what his father’s favorite jokes were. I don’t know if he realizes that a lot of the ones are what he would have found funny anyway, without his father’s cues. So I watch my husband watching this movie through his father’s eyes. Does he experience this silly slapstick comedy as a profane, necessary elegy? I do.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979):
“They make the movie so dramatic. Like divorce is a big tragedy. Like it warrants at a two hour plus running time,” my mother said. “You can boil it down to two scenes: when he stops saying ‘I love you’ and when she says ‘Leave.’ No one deserves an Academy Award for that script. I could have written it. After all, I lived it.”
Love Story (1970):
Even I cry during this dishonorable tearjerker. But the one thing that really bothers me is that after Ali MacGraw’s character dies, and Ryan O’Neal leaves the hospital, the drama then turns into a resolution of a father-son conflict. Instead, I wanted the movie to focus on the period of time it takes O’ Neal to walk from the hospital bed to his car. I wanted them to film it in real-time, so we see O’Neal walking and walking and walking, for maybe twenty minutes. No dialogue. When I imagine grieving over Phil’s death, that’s what I see as the most difficult distance: the bed he dies in and the exit to the hospital. I imagine thinking that as long as I don’t leave the building, he is not dead. I imagine hiding in nurses’ stations, bathrooms, storage rooms for days on end, thinking if I’m not found, he is not lost.
Who wouldn’t be excited by seeing Anthony Hopkins play a ventriloquist tortured by a murderous dummy?
How I’ve always craved to be someone’s puppet. I’ve longed for dummies with sculpted bodies. All jerks and pulling and strings. The pleasure of being moved by the hands of a familiar stranger. The pleasure of not having to think of words. The pleasure of making noise for someone else’s satisfaction.
Norma Rae (1979):
Once I went to human resources to complain about the way I was being treated. I was told to talk to someone named Lisa who was in charge. I wanted to be able to have a genuinely fair shot at overtime work just like everybody else. Lisa asked me to tell her my story. “Every single detail,” she said. I told her every single detail.
“You feel better?” she asked.
“Why would I feel better?” I said. “I still don’t have what I deserve.”
“Sometimes it feels good just to tell your side of the story,” she said.
I walked out of the office and decided that I needed to contact a union rep. I imagined myself as a contemporary Norma Rae. I imagined myself standing on a large conference table with a huge, unwieldy sign that said, “Union.” I imagined being so proud about the way the magic marker made the most beautiful lines.
The union rep listened to my side of the story. “Tell me every single detail,” he said.
I told him every single detail.
“You have a case,” he said.
I was happy. He said that we’d meet with Lisa and find out how I could be given an equal opportunity. “I’ll be there for you, for support,” he said.
Before the meeting, I decided I wanted to look like Norma Rae. I put gel in my hair and pulled it back. I practiced angry and determined looks in the mirror.
When the three of us met to talk, the union rep completely changed his tune from what he’d told me only a day earlier on the phone. He now said I didn’t have a case. He said he’d chatted with Lisa. They reviewed every single detail and realized everything was completely fine, nothing to worry about. He smiled. “Sorry,” the union rep and Lisa said in near unison. “But if you want to tell us your story again, please do. It’s always good to have an emotional release.”
If I were Sally Field, I guess at that moment I would have climbed up onto Lisa’s desk. But the “Union” sign I held up would now have a big question mark at the end.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975):
I wanted to be Nurse Ratched. I was obsessed with her nurse’s uniform: the aggressive whiteness, the tough material, the stubborn zipper, the perfect creases. Everything was surface and hidden threat. I could never imagine her taking off her cap. She rolled out of bed with it on. Her skin was dull sheen. Like the floors she walked on. Like the windows the patients stared out of.
She was a woman who always had a destination. She never looked around. She always looked forward. She was a woman who had mastered the art of locking a door: She knew never to look back.
I admired the way she watched the patients swallow their pills. Follow the rules. Under her watch, no one would choke. You could hear the broken silence of something going down their throat.
She was all about time, the clicking of a clock.
She was the measurement, the fit, the pattern. Numbers came as easy to her as madness did for her patients.
Corrections were not things she believed in. They were the work of the devil, an unbalanced mind, a patient with the wrong number of pills. She was as large as God. The sound of her shoes on the bare floor: the echo of wounded angels landing.
The Paper Chase (1977):
I worshipped John Houseman’s performance as the brilliant, didactic, intimidating law professor Dr. Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. in The Paper Chase. I’ve always wanted to scare students into intellectual submission. When Dr. Kingsfield immediately puts one of his students on the spot using the Socratic method we know we’re on a wild ride.
I try to think of things Dr. Kingsfield would say. This is one of my best lines. When I compliment a student on their writing, they’ll often say thank you. My response: “That was not a compliment. It was a fact. Never thank me again.”
If a student misses class and asks me if they missed anything important, I say, “Every single thing I say is important. Class is 60 minutes long. You missed at least 60 crucial things to your development of a writer and by extension a human being.”
There’s a part of them that believes me. So: I believe them. And that’s why I choose to be a teacher.
I was never the rebel. I was scared of people who could change their lives on a dime, like Jimmy Cooper in Quadrophenia. He jettisons his “respectable” career as a post room boy in a firm to be a London Mod, a gang leader.
I do, however, like the idea of having definite rivals. Mod or Rocker? Rocker or Mod? Make your decision, boy. Which are you? It’s hard to make mistakes in life when your enemies are clearly marked.
Of course, it never turns out the way you want it. In Quadrophrenia, during a violent fight, a member in one of the rival gangs dies, and it turns out that it’s Jimmy’s best friend. He doesn’t stick around. He takes off.
Just as Jimmy thinks he’s escaped from his former disrupted and disappointing life, he ends up being catapulted over a ditch on his motorbike. The ending is a little ambiguous. While some say the beginning of the film hints that Jimmy survives, others have argued that Jimmy kills himself in that final scene.
Curiously, the director of the film didn’t find out until it was too late: the same location was the site of a real life suicide.
I imagine Sally Field (with her union picket sign in hand), James Caan, and me holding hands, an invincible trio, roller-skating with sheer bravado past the skyscrapers holding evil Republicans. James Caan’s character in Rollerball is the hero I never had, one who refused to give into corporate power and instead fought in tournaments owned by huge global corporations.
Sally, James Caan, and I and would form our own team, clad in body armor, circling around huge tracks. James Caan would lead on a motorcycle, whipping a metallic softball at our opponents, taking them down with his arm strength and the drive for justice.
We would love the sport. Not the institution. We would know the joy of a game. A game can offer something like love.
An institution will never, ever love you back.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977):
When I think of the movie Smokey and the Bandit, I think of wind. I do not think about the silly plot involving a massive car race over a tractor trailer of beer. I do not think of Sally Field and Burt Reynolds and the lack of spark in their romance. I do not think of the brilliant editing, showing us the hot pursuits with precise cross-cutting.
There is nothing more beautiful than wind. Perhaps this is why I am afraid to drive. In Smokey and the Bandit, I like watching the wind tousling the hair of the actors, and sending the vehicles into a tailspin, or disappearing feet before the flag falls at the end of the race. I imagine the wind as God’s breath, overtaking my car, blowing me to the heavens above. The wind reaches everything. No movie, even Smokey and the Bandit, can quite capture the wind’s stillness or its aggression, its fierce determination to do what no human can: move beyond itself.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1978):
Everyone thinks there’s so much blood in this movie. But whenever I see the film, I’m always in awe how little of it there actually is. In fact, there is none. For me, the scariest moment has nothing to do with any sort of gore. This is the set-up: we see one of the women who escaped from Leatherface in the forest. She runs into a gas station/convenience store. She’s scared to death. She has forgotten to close and lock the door. She hides behind the counter. She gets up and tries to see if he’s coming. It’s dead silent. She waits. And waits. As we do. And we already know she will soon be dead, and she pretty likely knows it, too.
Death is not a cheap scare. Death is not a lot of dumb shocks. Death is the moment between waiting for something to happen and what happens when it does.
Up in Smoke (1978):
Cheech and Chong were my heroes. I remember catching their debut Up in Smoke on late-night cable. The Latino comedians inspired me to try to light my first bong. My hands were awkward and the fire singed my best friend Sean’s hair and burned her ear.
I thought for sure our friendship was over. How can you profess to care for someone after you almost killed them for a dumb puff? The comedy duo possessed a certain grace when they handed the bong back and forth, inhaling and exhaling with a perfect rhythmic intensity. It wasn’t something you could learn. It was a God-given gift. They had the perfect rapport. No woman got in their way.
Years ago I found out they had broken up. It ended in a truly nasty, irreconcilable way. How could my friendship still remain if theirs didn’t?
Sean and I never looked at each other blurry-eyed and hungry, laughing over nothing, wrapped in a cloud of sweet air. We were sober and desperate, marching through smokeless gay bars, inhaling the fumes of bad cologne and stale poppers.
Viva Knievel! (1977):
Imagine being the most talented motorcycle stuntman in the history of the world and finding out that villainous people are luring you to Mexico where they want to kill you and then pack cocaine in your corpse for easy traveling over county borders. You know, that old story.
How good it would feel to do jumps and flips and wheelies like Evil Knievel, all in the name of escape and transcendence.
Sometimes Mr. Knievel doesn’t even hold onto the handlebars. I guess that’s my tragic flaw: I always do. And my grasp is always too tight.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974):
I can still remember the first time I saw Gena Rowlands as Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence. She’s suffering from severe mental illness. The first half of the movie focuses on her preparing dinner for a dozen men in her husband’s construction crew. You can see how untethered she is. Everything sends her reeling. We don’t know if she’s going to make it past serving them an initial drink.
The next time we see her she has just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital. Her family has thrown her a welcome home party. It’s a nice idea. But the sheer pressure of having to show gratitude and joy overwhelms her. She’s probably been pushed over the edge again. We don’t know for sure. The movie ends before we are certain.
Like most of Cassavetes’ films, the scenes go on and on. There are only two set pieces in the entire movie: the kitchen table and the living room where the party takes place. Once I got a stopwatch and timed how many seconds it took before she started to go truly mad.
I recorded it in my journal.
I liked to keep track of madness. I liked to see when it was, exactly, that she broke. I needed to know the demarcation between sanity and doom. I didn’t know it then, but I was preparing to cross that line myself.
If you think about the movies that mean the most to you, every single scene of your favorite becomes meaningful foreshadowing, and, equally, every moment becomes a useless epilogue, not enough to hold on to when the film, suddenly, ends.
X, Y, and Zee (1972):
The set-up: A rich man (Michael Caine) who is married to a rich woman (Elizabeth Taylor) falls in love with a young rich woman (Susannah York).
What the directors failed to realize: You can’t create a measured, precise three-way love triangle if one of the lovers is Elizabeth Taylor. No offense to Susannah York, but more than one point of the triangle has to matter. Elizabeth Taylor is the point. The single point. She’s always the point of any movie she is in. Nothing else matters, no matter how exquisite the shape, no matter how ruined the lines of the triangle may be.
Young Frankenstein (1974):
I was obsessed with Marty Feldman’s eyes. I wanted to hold them in my hands. There was something beautiful in their huge, bulbous nature. I imagined putting them on my desk, like small paperweights. I liked the idea of them looking at me as I looked at the world. It was the closest thing to poetry I could imagine.
I’ve never liked collecting movie stills. I like to keep the images in my head, altering whatever I want for my satisfaction.
But I do own one. It’s from Zardoz, a sci-fi movie that takes place in 2035. Sean Connery plays the hero. I’ve watched the film three times and still cannot explain the plot in any concise way. There are so many characters that if you asked even the best Mormon genealogist, he’d quit his job and just laugh bitterly to himself every time Pioneer Day rolled around. Let’s just say this: Zardoz involves well-intentioned assassins, phony gods, magic stones, badly staged fight scenes, and a secret society of immortals.
But I don’t really care what happens in the movie. That’s not what’s important.
What matters is Sean Connery’s costume.
He is scantily clad in a flaming red bandolier and matching jock strap, knee-high black boots. His hair in a ponytail. It is, perhaps, the single strangest costume ever worn by a major male Hollywood star in an action movie.
Some might say this is a bungled attempt for Connery to draw attention to himself as a groovy 70s sci-fi hero. Others might say it’s a way for him (or the director) to publicly work out private sexual kinks.
But a rare few might simply call it stripping down and getting ridiculous for no other reason than a profoundly mad love for the movies.
I keep the picture on my writing desk. For inspiration.
Steve Fellner has published two poetry collections and a memoir. He lives and teaches in Upstate New York.