The Movie Critic

During my long-ago university days, a friend and classmate in our journalism programme enticed me on several occasions to skip classes and spend our days in the local movie theatres.  Curtailed by our austere budgets, we patronized the seedier of those—the Biltmore, the Rio, the Roxy—often getting three features, two cartoons, a newsreel, and a couple of previews for the price of admission.

After being indoors from shortly after nine in the morning until well after four in the afternoon, lunching on salted cashews and soda, I frequently saw the journey home on public transit through squinting eyes, and with a flickering headache.

Such reckless behaviour did not seriously impede our academic progress, happily.  Despite our truant ways, both of us managed to graduate on schedule, thanks to the great gift of being able to write well and on deadline.  I soon enrolled in a teacher-training programme, which led me to the path I followed for the next thirty-years-plus. 

My friend, on the other hand, sought and gained immediate employment with a small city newspaper where, among other assigned duties, she quickly established herself as the resident movie critic.  I was never sure how stringent the requirements were for that role, though, because most of the films we enjoyed had featured such luminaries as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, starring in such films as The House of Usher, The Raven, and Pit and the Pendulum.

Not exactly boffo hits at the box office!

On the occasion of my friend’s retirement a few years ago, I sent her a sincere note of congratulations and remembrance, hearkening back to those golden school days of yore where she had received the best training for her work as a critic from the most unlikely of sources.

And just for fun, to show her the havoc that would have ensued had I followed that same career path, I sent along my imagined synopsis of several award-winning movies from the 1920s to the 2010s, picking one from each decade.  My list is reproduced below, including the names of their respective directors—

1920s   The Kid   (Charlie Chaplin)

A woebegone tramp, homeless and alone, finally finds happiness living in an abandoned boxcar with a baby goat.

1930’s   City Lights   (Charlie Chaplin)

An impoverished, old lamplighter in 1890s New York almost changes history when he tries to discourage Thomas Edison from inventing the lightbulb.

1940s   All the King’s Men   (Robert Rossen)

The king of a faraway land finds that neither he, nor any of his men, can repair his breakfast egg that was accidentally broken when it fell off a high wall.

1950s   Twelve O’Clock High   (Henry King)

Jack Kerouac writes a literary masterpiece after discovering the joy of smoking dope continuously as soon as he wakens every morning.

1960s   Some Like It Hot   (Billy Wilder)

A young chef in the czarist court discovers that, although the czarina does not like pease porridge hot—preferring it nine days old and cold—some do.

1970s   Carrie   (Brian De Palma)

In a remake of Birth of a Nation (1915), the birth and early activism of Carrie, a radical member of the temperance movement, is chronicled. 

1980s   Full Metal Jacket   (Stanley Kubrick)

In a film adaptation of the classic tale of Ivanhoe, a solitary knight in shining armor sets out on a quest to gain entry to King Arthur’s Round Table.

1990s   Men in Black   (Barry Sonnenfeld)

Two undertakers, known as the fishin’ morticians, enter a salmon-fishing contest, spawning a host of jokes when their prize catch is already embalmed.

2000s   There Will Be Blood   (Paul Thomas Anderson)

A food critic in Los Angeles learns what else he will find on his plate when he orders his prime-rib extra-rare.

2010s   Spring Breakers   (Harmony Korine)

Two grossly-overweight friends find work in a mattress and box-spring factory, testing new products before they go to market.

Some time after sending off my note, I received a lovely reply from my old friend, assuring me of her continuing regard, but with no commentary on my list.  It may be that, despite her job, she had never reviewed the films I cited, and so accepted my synopses at face value. 

Or, more probably, she assumed I have taken leave of my senses.

But that’s alright.  I always wanted to be her friend, but I never wanted to be a movie critic!

Trusty Sidekick

As a young boy, I loved the Saturday afternoon matinees at our neighbourhood movie theatre.  Whenever I could earn or scrounge the twenty-five cents needed for admission, popcorn, and a soft drink, I’d be there, wide-eyed in the dark, lost for a couple of hours in the fantasies played out before me.

The matinees usually consisted of a serialized short, with a cliff-hanger at the end of every episode, a cartoon, and a main feature.  At some point along the way, all but the serials began to appear in colour.  Imagine!

My favourites were westerns—cowboys and Indians, as we thought of them in those innocent, bygone days—and I quickly developed a fondness for the rugged heroes who rode the purple sage.

In the early fifties, my parents acquired a television, black and white, of course, and Saturday mornings after breakfast became prime viewing time.  With a lineup of westerns and cartoons, it was almost as good as being at the movies.  I still remember my parents turning the TV off if I was still in my pyjamas, or if my bed wasn’t made, when I settled on the carpet to watch.

It wasn’t long ‘til I realized that every cowboy hero had a trusty sidekick.  And years before I became aware of such concepts as racism or ageism, those sidekicks were men of diverse ethnicity, many of them old enough to be grandfathers.  With perhaps one exception, there were no women.

cowboy pic

The Lone Ranger, my ultimate hero, had Tonto, an American Indian.  Hopalong Cassidy had ‘California’ Carlson, a bewhiskered, bowlegged geezer.  And the Cisco Kid had Pancho, both Hispanics with huge sombreros.

There were others, as well.  Gene Autry, with ‘Smiley’ Burnett, and later Pat Buttram; ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, with ‘Jingles’ P. Jones; and Roy Rogers, with ‘Gabby’ Hayes, and later Pat Brady.  Rogers, the self-styled ‘King of the Cowboys’, also had the only female sidekick, Dale Evans (who, off-screen, was his wife).

The heroes were always the stars of their movies and TV shows, of course, while the sidekicks played supporting roles.  And for a long time, I—being impressionable and loving attention—imagined I was the star in a real-life ‘movie’ of my own, assuming all around me were my supporting actors.  Parents, siblings, friends—all trusty sidekicks, playing out their backup roles.

It never occurred to me back then that others might not feel the same way.  For a long time, I didn’t perceive myself as a supporting actor in someone else’s story.  Egocentricity, I learned years later, is one of the stages children pass through on their way to maturity; but apparently, I took my own sweet time on that journey.  I was blessed, I now realize, with family and friends who either didn’t care about my delusions of greatness, or simply tolerated my selfish illusions out of the goodness of their hearts.

Eventually, the truth dawned that it was a fallacy to suppose I was the lead actor in everyone else’s movies.  I came to realize that all of them were, legitimately, the stars of their own stories, and I, at best, a trusty sidekick—or, in some cases, merely a bit-player.

Getting married firmly cemented that truth for me, and becoming a father further reinforced it.  I came to know the importance of being there for those dear to me, in effect earning their support in return, rather than just expecting it.

My lingering love of movies has me glued every year to telecasts of the Academy Awards, when the year’s best performances and productions are honoured by the industry.  Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress seemed to me the most coveted prizes when I first began to tune in.  But my perception has shifted over the years.

My grandchildren, five in all, are leading rich, exciting lives as they move from childhood to adolescence, discovering all life has to offer.  They love me, and I them, but I’m hardly relevant anymore to their everyday experiences.

My daughters are mature, liberated women, pursuing rewarding careers alongside their husbands.  They love me, too, but I orbit their stars now, not the reverse.

And my wife?  Well, she remains the epitome of an autonomous woman—secure enough to keep seeking new adventures, caring enough to reach a hand back for me, her trusty sidekick.

That egocentric world I once carelessly inhabited is gone forever.  At a point now where I have more yesterdays than tomorrows, I find security and an abiding comfort in being part of the cast in my loved-ones’ life-movies.

And I wonder how different a world we might have if every person on the planet—regardless of race, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, political leaning—could win an award as Best Supporting Actor, or Best Supporting Actress, in the lives of everyone around them.

That’s an Oscar I would happily accept!

Oscar pic