Everyday Movies

I’m astonished at how regular a part of my life movies have become these days. When I was a kid in Bangkok, few English-language movies were shown, still fewer that were suitable for kids. I dimly remember Camelot (very long – I fell asleep before the depressing ending), being scared at Diamonds are Forever, and The Wizard of Oz – which I didn’t see very well because I had forgotten my glasses, not yet being used to carrying them with me.

At the end of every film in Thailand, they played the national anthem while showing patriotic pictures of the king and the flag. Everyone had to stand to attention until it was over, so there would be a stampede during the final credits to get out of the theatre before the anthem began. The authorities eventually caught on, and enforced respect by playing the anthem right before the film started.

In Pittsburgh we had TV, which was a novelty to me. We had only gotten a TV in Bangkok in 1969 to see the moon landing, which everyone stayed up all night to watch. Thai TV didn’t show much at all in those days, let alone in English, so after the moon show was over, the TV went out to the servants’ quarters. I would sometimes go there to watch Bewitched; you could get the English soundtrack by tuning to a special station on the radio.

Back in the States, I liked some shows, especially Saturday morning cartoons, but I never got used to the American attitude towards television. In many households it was (and still is) constantly on, which I found distracting; I couldn’t just ignore it or half-watch it, blaring away in a corner, as everyone else seemed to do. I would go to a friend’s house to visit and play, and be disappointed because she’d want to watch TV; this was not my idea of a social activity.

When I was in 7th grade, the public television station PBS began showingMonty Python’s Flying Circus late on Tuesday nights, followed by the International Animation Festival; it was a great treat for me to be allowed to stay up til 11 to watch both.

American TV also gave me a chance to catch up on classic movies I had missed. “The Wizard of Oz” was shown once a year, around Thanksgiving, and it was a very big deal, advertised for weeks beforehand. One year Dunkin Donuts came out with their “Dunkin Munchkins” (the holes instead of the donuts), and used this annual TV event to launch them. Then there were the classic Christmas movies like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman sung by Burl Ives. (I never liked those; I preferred real animation.)

In 1976, we moved to Bangladesh, and were again cut off from English-language media. (We entertained ourselves by making music – no bad thing, but a topic for another article.) One of the American government services showed a film once a week; they were mostly films I didn’t particularly want to see, but I’d go out of sheer boredom, with the result that I wouldn’t sleep for weeks after seeing things like Carrie.

Up at Woodstock, we didn’t even have that. The school would show a film once a semester or so. It never occurred to me to go see a Hindi movie in town, partly because my Hindi wasn’t that good. Once or twice we saw English films at Picture Palace. I was mystified by the popularity of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, a pair of apparently English actors who made a series of farcical westerns, very popular in India; how was it that I’d never heard of them in the States? I learned many years later that they’re both Italian, and the films were shot entirely in Italy; both were still making silly movies when I moved to Italy in 1991.

During my Woodstock years, my dad moved back to Thailand, where mass entertainment had come a long way. There was more TV, though I only watched The Muppet Show, again listening to the English soundtrack on the radio. Movie theatres were now equipped with glassed-in sections where you could sit if you wanted to hear the English soundtrack, and all the big Hollywood movies reached Bangkok not long after their US release. There were also “movie restaurants,” where you could eat a meal while watching a movie.

During home leave in the States in the summer of 1979, I gorged on movies, forcing my dad to accompany me to The Muppet Movie (he fell asleep) andDracula, but refusing to see Alien (“In space, no one can hear you scream” – but in the theatre they would have!). And I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Showfor the first – but far from last – time.

My university years were film heaven. I took a film course at UC Santa Cruz, analyzing such classics as The Rules Of The Game, Rome: Open City, andPather Panchali. Santa Cruz being the funky alternative town that it is, there were several art house theatres. My boyfriend and I got carded going to see the X-rated gay film Taxi zum Klo. Even when she’d established that we were old enough, the ticket seller asked: “Are you sure you want to see this?” We did, and found it mostly funny, and very touching at the end.

When I transferred to the University of Texas, I was delighted to discover that the Student Union cinema showed about 15 different movies a week, plus there were other film societies around campus, and of course lots of theatres in town for the first-run stuff, and friends to go see them all with. (Poor John, I was still a wimp – I dumped popcorn all over him after swearing I wasn’t scared inSomething Wicked This Way Comes.)

When I visited my dad in Indonesia in 1984, I feared movie withdrawal. My attempt to see a movie in Semarang, during an earlier visit, had been a disaster – it was A Fistful of Dollars, not bad in itself, but smoking was allowed in Indonesian cinemas, and everyone smokes clove cigarettes. After 3 or 4 hours of Sergio Leone, you come out smelling like a baked ham.

In Jakarta, however, we had the video man. Videocassette players were well established by this time, but not video rental stores. So this guy would come around once a week with huge cases of videos; you could pick as many as you wanted, and pay a small fee to keep them for the week. All pirated, of course, which made for great variety. We even saw an Australian television mini-series about an ugly rich woman whose husband dumps her into an crocodile-infested swamp to be eaten. Unbeknownst to him, she survives. After extensive cosmetic surgery and a long recovery, she is unrecognizably gorgeous and bent on revenge… why on earth does this thing stick in my mind?

My daughter’s generation is growing up with no concept of media scarcity. We have a VCR and DVD player, and a large collection of films in both formats. Blockbuster Video arrived in Italy years ago, and our local one in Milan had a small section of English-language tapes. Now, with DVD, there are multiple soundtracks, so language is no longer a problem. My only gripe with Blockbuster is that they don’t have classic or unusual films (I remember fondly a video rental shop near a friend’s house in San Francisco that I could have spent a lifetime exploring). So I end up buying a lot of the older films that I want to see. (I’ve discovered that the HMV shop at Heathrow Terminal 1 almost always has something interesting on sale, cheap.)

Ross’ generation also doesn’t realize how privileged they are to be able to watch a film over and over again, something you used to be able to do only in film courses. If you have a small child and a VCR, you’re familiar with the phenomenon: a kid will watch the same movie constantly for weeks or months, in the same way she might demand a beloved story every night for weeks or months. Ross has long outgrown Disney movies; she now watches Stanley Kubrick films, over and over. My 14-year-old film auteur.

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