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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The All Movie Issue

I didn't lose it at the movies

September 1st, 2003

BY TERRY ROSS

In June, loyal readers will remember, I asked Black Lamb’s occasional contributors and regular columnists to write on a book that had influenced them. This month, I’ve asked them to do the same for a film. The result is the All-Movie Issue.

Thanks be to God, the writers didn’t repeat June’s prank. Back then, a mischievous subgroup of your favorite columnists played a nasty trick on their indulgent editor and sent in a passel of splendorinthegrass.jpgbook articles on a single author, James Michener, a noted ransacker of libraries. I thought they’d all lost their minds simultaneously. Scared the hell out of me. This time, I feared an onslaught of articles praising the acting talent of Clint Eastwood or the films of Blake Edwards.

Mercifully, I was spared these indignities.

Instead, I got a wonderfully mixed bag of serious and whimsical essays on cinematic art (The Third Man), artiness (Peter Greenaway), trash (Waterworld, Towering Inferno), creepiness (Alien), horror (The Thing, Invaders from Mars), immortality (Casablanca, Little Caesar, Bambi), as well as ruminations on kid movies, screen homosexuality, the western genre, even a piece on Jean Harlow as an author. And, supporting the contention that movies haven’t had the profound effect — at least on Black Lamb writers — that books have, I received not one but two columns insisting that most movies made in the last fifty years are basically garbage.

Fair enough. I have an ambivalent attitude toward this question myself. Like the Black Lamb columnists, I can think of books that changed the way I looked at the world, books that stayed with me for a long time, books that are still with me. If I don’t think of movies in the same way, it’s not, as some have said, because the experience of a movie is brief (a couple of hours) compared to the time it takes to read a book. No, I’m convinced a book sticks longer because it engages the mind more fully.
When we watch a film, everything is there before us, two-dimensional but otherwise not much different from the way we see things in so-called “real life.” In a book, though, the imagination must create the sights, sounds and emotions, the people, places and things out of nothing but marks on a page. This brain activity — all the interconnecting neurons or whatever they are — leaves an impression. The mind doesn’t easily forget what it has had to work so hard to create.

Still, movies have a special sort of meaning. I, for example, tend to remember films in connection with other events in my life at the time I saw them, and I don’t do this as much with books. I remember when I saw Lawrence of Arabia — the people I went with, the car we drove in, the apartment I lived in at the time. I remember seeing Taxi Driver with a woman I would later fall in love with, and having an argument in the alleyway outside the theater, we were both so upset by what we’d seen. I remember driving my dad’s ’58 Chevy to the re-release of Gone with the Wind and my date weeping more or less continuously for three hours at the plight of the execrable Scarlett O’Hara. And when I think of Splendor in the Grass, I’m back at the drive-in movies in the California summer between my junior and senior years in high school, with Patti Stone or Denise Boone sitting nervously beside me.

To this day, I think that a huge screen silhouetted against a night sky is the best medium for watching movies, at least American movies. It doesn’t matter if you’re at an outdoor rooftop cinema in Athens, Greece, where I saw Easy Rider with the Parthenon in my peripheral vision, or at a suburban California drive-in, with a crackling cast-iron speaker hung on the window and little kids screaming up and down between the cars. The tiny, black-box art house is fine for movies that have some subtlety to them, but for Splendor in the Grass, the drive-in is the message.

Or so it seemed in the summer of 1961, when Splendor seemed to run for months and months, from the first late spring evenings up to and beyond the start of the school year. I went at least five times, and over the course of that long, hot summer I eventually saw all of it, in spite of myself. I say “in spite of myself” because watching films was distinctly not the goal of adolescent boys sitting in their parents’ cars, a tumid tub of popcorn in their laps, their arms laid awkwardly along the seat backs. What exactly was the goal wasn’t entirely clear — romance, I’m sure. In my inexperienced circle of boys and girls, a little kissing, with eyes and lips pressed shut, was ferociously, desperately exciting. For us nerdy guys, to fondle a young breast was almost beyond imagining, and although we had locker-room words and jokes for various stages of the sexual act and parts of the female body, we would have thought we’d died and gone to heaven if we’d been able to achieve “bare titty,” the charmingly named “stink finger,” or the ultimate prize, “nooky.”

It simply wasn’t in the cards, and why should it have been? Not long before that summer, instead of sitting in the dark, tantalizingly close to a female creature of my age, I was scampering coltishly through the school corridors wearing a slide rule in a leather holster on my belt, cracking stupid puns. Now, all of a sudden, here was Patti, with her adorable, dark ringlets and her lavender mohair sweater. Or here was Denise, with her gorgeous strawberry-blonde hair — not copper or auburn like today’s innumerable bottle redheads, but the genuine rare article, a glowing reddish blonde.

I didn’t think to notice then, but the movie on the screen was a close approximation of my own adolescent situation. In his first screen role, Warren Beatty as Bud Stamper was a lot handsomer than me, and he was a high school football hero rather than a four-eyed dork, but he and I shared a problem: sex. Bud’s girlfriend Deanie Loomis — Natalie Wood got an Oscar nomination for the role — would kiss and sigh, but she wouldn’t put out. Her mom had told her not to, that boys wouldn’t respect her if she did. I don’t know what Patti’s and Denise’s moms had told them, but the result was the same. In fact, my situation was worse, because Bud and Deanie lived during the Roaring Twenties (albeit in Kansas) and I, to my disgust and frustration, was stuck in the prudish, pre-Beatles, post Eisenhower Sixties.

In Splendor poor Deanie goes nuts when Bud avoids her rather than subject himself to a chronic case of blue balls. (We boys actually believed in this mythical condition; I think a fair number of girls did, too.) And Bud’s slutty sister gets killed in a car crash, the payoff, apparently, for being such a tramp. Nothing quite this dramatic happened to anyone in my immediate social circle that summer, but the pro- and inhibitions were all in place.

We didn’t worry about such correspondences at the time. Adolescence is a supremely absorbing business. So while Bud and Deanie agonized prettily amid the lush Elia Kazan cinematography with its embarrassing surfeit of running water imagery, Patti and I, or Denise and I, agonized in our own ways.

It was youth. It was torture. It was life.

Lord, it was delicious! •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Ross | Link to this Entry

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