I like movies. No, let me amend that, I love movies and have ever since I was a kid. On the island where I grew up we had one movie theatre and they changed the bill almost daily. What that meant is that you had to catch a film when it was showing or you missed it forever. Or so it seemed. Remember we’re talking about a time before TV or movies on TV were commonplace, and before videos or DVD’s were even a gleam in anyone’s eye. In other words we’re talking about the Dark Ages, the nineteen fifties. The mid nineteen fifties.
So due to the speed with which they changed films I went to the movies daily, or almost every day. At first my mother used to take me. She was a big movie fan. She read the fan magazines, listened to radio reports on their lives and identified with the lives of the characters that they played on the screen. Particularly the female stars. Women like Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Marie Windsor and of course Joan Crawford. Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn were alright but she preferred the low income bad girls. The ones without education who had to do menial jobs like waitressing and hat checking and fight their way up the social ladder. She also liked the femme fatales. I suspect that she thought of herself as a femme fatale of sorts. And why not? My father thought himself a sort of Caribbean Bogart although he wouldn’t admit it. So why shouldn’t she think of herself as Gilda? And she wasn’t the only one. Everyone in our neighborhood went to the movies all the time and identified with the various characters they saw on the screen.
When I got older and started earning my own money I went to the movies sometimes twice a day. I’d see the film once in the afternoon and if I liked it I’d go back to see it again that night. A lot of my friends did the same thing too but curiously enough I was the one who got the reputation of being “movie crazy”. Perhaps it was because I talked more about the films that we’d seen than anyone else. I read all the fan magazines too and was eager to discuss what I’d read with anyone who would listen. Once I even wrote an anecdote about meeting Sidney Poitier and sent it to Modern Screen magazine. They printed it and sent me a check for twenty five dollars. It was the first money I ever earned for my literary endeavors.
Anyway, my reputation for being movie crazy grew and all through my High School years people said that about me, often to my face and definitely behind my back. And when they did they weren’t being flattering. Being movie crazy by their value standards meant that I was silly, not serious, out of touch with reality and maybe a little stupid. All of which was probably true when I think back on it today. But what I had trouble understanding then and now is why did the term apply only to me and not any of my friends? Still that didn’t stop or even modify my movie going habit. I made it my mission to go and see every motion picture that came to town. The only time I didn’t go was when I was ill or had some school or job related project that conflicted with the time of the showing. Friends, teachers and family began to worry about me. I was dealing too much with the world projected up on that silver screen and not enough with the world around me. Then foolishly I said something about wanting to go out to Hollywood and maybe becoming a movie star myself. My home room teacher, one Sister Agnes Theresa, took me aside and asked me if this was true. Because of the way she asked the question and the worried expression on her face, I didn’t deny nor confirm what she’d heard. I just stood there looking at her as though she had spoken a foreign language.
After waiting for awhile and getting no response she went into a monologue about the evils of a life in films especially in Hollywood, the place where they made those movies. She said that it was a sinful place where all sorts of disgusting activities took place. That it was hardly the sort of environment that a good Catholic boy like myself should aspire to becoming a part of or try to emulate.
My mother without warning one day took me aside and queried me seriously about what I wanted to do with my life. I was sixteen at the time. “I don’t know” I told her. By this time I knew enough to keep my movie ambitions to myself. But she must’ve heard something or just sensed that I wasn’t being totally candid with her. “Hollywood” she said is nonsense. “The movie business is for good looking white people and Americans. You are neither, so get those foolish thoughts out of your head.” I told her “Yes, Mama.” And when I did I guess I meant it, but of course I didn’t.
It got so that I became a sort of a joke in my area. Not in a harsh or cruel way. It was more benign. The way we view someone with a pronounced eccentricity or one who was slightly crazy, but harmlessly so. Any question anyone had about the plot of a film or who the actors were in it were directed to me if I was close by. “Ask Gus, he knows about all that stuff.” And it was true. For some reason I seemed to be possessed of a photographic memory concerning the details of every movie that I saw. I could match the faces with the names of nearly all the actors in the various roles. Not just the stars but the featured players as well. I was deferred to as the ultimate authority in such matters. And this wasn’t just among my peers but by the adult population as well. Yet when the phrase “Ask Gus” was spoken it was done with an edge of mockery because the unspoken part of that sentence was: “He has time for that kind of nonsense, I don’t. I’ve got serious things to think about. And movie trivia isn’t one of them.”
I sometimes would wonder why I loved movies so much and why I was so obsessed with them. It was true, I was obsessed, but why? I lived on an island in the Caribbean that was about as far away from Hollywood and the movies as one could get. So what was this obsession all about? Was there something wrong with me as everyone was implying? Why couldn’t I be more like my friends and school mates who talked about going off to college, joining the army or just getting a good government job. Some even talked about buying a boat and sailing around the world. But me, all I could think about was Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures, Universal International, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures and MGM.
To cure myself of this habit I tried to stop going to the movies, but that didn’t work. I also tried to stop buying the fan magazines as well but failed at that too. But what I did manage to succeed at doing was talking so publicly about movies and displaying my knowledge about them. I’d see the films, think about them, and sometimes write out my opinions in a little book I had where I kept a record of every film I saw. But when anyone asked me anything about any film that was shown my standard response was: “Beats me.” Or I would just simply lie and say: “I haven’t seen it.” See, I might’ve been movie crazy but I wasn’t going to be everyone’s movie information center. After awhile people stopped asking me questions and all was well.
I left the island and went to New York where I had the opportunity of seeing more movies than ever before. They came and went, the old ones and the new, the images piled up and yet I was dealing with the world around me in a fairly healthy fashion. I was reading books (and in the process learning to write as well), going to plays, visiting museums and galleries, listening to music, studying a variety of things that interested me, holding down a job and going out with girls etc. So whatever fear I or anyone else had about movies completely absorbing my life was completely unfounded. It was possible to be involved with movies but not absorbed by them.
I watch a lot of movies still; in fact even though I retired I still sometimes teach and do work shops about movies, movie history, genres etc. Quite often I sometimes get into heated discussions with peers and aficionados and enjoy them tremendously. When I taught classes regularly I used to tell my students from time to time “Make your passion your profession.” I did and I never regretted it. Movies were my passion, are my passion and will remain my passion for the rest of my life. Duke Ellington, the great American composer, once said “Music is my mistress”, I guess I could say the same thing about films.
This blog was created by me and Travis Mills as a repository of our various filmic enthusiasms. Hope you enjoy it.