Friday, July 25, 2008

In the family tradition of tackling one thematic topic during my father’s summer visit, the four of us—SJG, my sister, my father, and I--sat on the back porch all afternoon last Sunday to discuss “movie moments.” In a wide-ranging discussion, we made lists of favorite movies, memorable quotes from movies, iconic American movies, best international movies, groundbreaking movies, and everything in between. Later, as I pondered how to organize our stream-of-consciousness observations, it came to me that my father has the most emblematic film memories. Below are his top five.

The Firefly (1937)
My father has loved movies his whole life. As a young boy, he went to the Comet movie theater in Milwaukee every week for double features and, along with all the other children in the audience, shot paper clips at the movie screen and released the flatulence that gave the movie house its "gas house" moniker.

As a six-year-old boy, his favorite movie was The Firefly (above), a smash hit of the late 1930s, starring Allan Jones (left) and Jeannette MacDonald. In this musical romance, Allan Jones--mounted on a white steed--serenades Jeannette MacDonald as she rides in a coach through a desert landscape accompanied by her dark-haired duena. Crooning "The Donkey Serenade" in a robust tenor voice, Jones is able to catch the attention of his seemingly insouciant love interest. As the song comes to a close, Jones raises his arms in a swell of dramatic feeling--and falls off his horse. The carriage continues along, and the horse makes his way back to Jones, who kisses him on the nose. To this day, my father can still be caught singing to himself, "There's a song in the air/But the fair senorita/Doesn't seem to care/For the song in the air."

Pearl Harbor (1941)
Just a few years later, on December 7, 1941, my father learned of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pear Harbor, Hawaii (above)--at the movies. Instead of the usual Movietone News reels that preceded and followed each feature film, staff at the Jackson theater had quickly scrawled on a piece of paper (with a backwards "N") and projected onto the screen, "JAPAN BOMBED PEARL HARBOR!" Even as a nine-year-old boy, my father understood that the announcement meant war for the United States.

The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
After World War II, in which two of my father's brothers served, he saw
The Sands of Iwo Jima, a 1949 film starring John Wayne as Sergeant John Stryker. The Academy Award-nominated film re-creates the drama of the 1945 battle, in which some 28,000 American and 21,000 Japanese soldiers died in the struggle to gain control of the Japanese island. The battle was forever captured in the American psyche through the classic image (above) by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Allied flag raising atop the island's Mount Suribachi. My father denies that he is an impressionable romantic, but it's an empty claim. After the movie, he charged up Wells Street all the way home.

Fanfan La Tulipe (1952)

By the early 1950s, my father had left Milwaukee to study in New York City. There, at the Fine Arts theater, he saw Fanfan La Tulipe, a 1952 French costume drama starring Bosley Crowther's "Italian doll"--Gina Lollobrigida(left). In this swashbuckling romance, Lollobrigida plays Adeline, a luscious young gypsy woman in eighteenth-century France. She fabricates for Fanfan--a handsome peasant played by Gerard Philipe--a prediction of a glorious, romantic future.

My father's memory of the film is the way in which dialogue--in the era of censorship mania--captured lust without showing very much at all. From a tree below which Adeline is standing at one point in the film, Fanfan looks out over the landscape, remarking, as the camera highlights Adeline's revealing peasant blouse, "I can see right down the valley!" Indeed, Adeline's "valley" is irresistable, and her romatic vision comes true. She and Fanfan fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after.

Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Twenty years later, in 1973, the United States was at the height of a sexual revolution. Romantic notions of bucolic love had vanished, replaced by unblinking, graphic portrayals of human sexual drive. Perhaps no other film captured the era so well as Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1973 film about a chance encounter between Paul, an American expatriate in Paris (played by Marlon Brando), and Jeanne, a much younger Parisian woman (played by Maria Schneider). The encounter turns into a loveless three-day, sex-only affair in which the couple (above) engage in every sexual act imaginable. Viewed as obscene by some and critically acclaimed by others, the film was known for the "Go get the butter" scene--an explicit portrayal of anal sex that takes place on the floor with butter as the lubricant.

My father denies that the sexual revolution impacted him, despite the fact that he and my mother divorced at about this time and were young enough, each of them, to move on to other relationships. The Tango scene that sticks in my father's mind as the heart of the movie is not the butter scene. It's a scene in which Paul and Tom, Jeanne's fiance (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), sit on the end of a bed to commiserate about their shared experiences of Jeanne's betrayals. Amazingly unaware of the fact, they each wear matching robes given to them by her.

My father says he had the same experience--minus the butter scene. In high school, he and another boy were in love with the same redhead, who jilted them both for a third fellow at a beachside party. My father and the castoff lover shared their grievances on the sands of Lake Michigan that night. Which proves to me that we bring our own lives to the movies--a giant reflecting surface for the human story.


fresca said...
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fresca said...
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ddip said...

This was an incredible post to research and write. As you say, it was a trip down the lane of personal and community history. And yes, our father's "Tango" memory reminds me of the way in which I've always viewed "Anna Karenina" as a story about agricultural reform in Russia!