Self-Portrait as a 1980s Cineplex Movie Theatre
I never knew who I wanted to be: Amadeus or Salieri?
In the movie, Amadeus wins. Who doesn’t want to have an inevitable triumph, a defiant legacy? We know his music will live forever. The final scene shows us a decrepit Salieri in a wheelchair, rolling around in a nursing home, bellowing, “Mediocrities, everywhere! I absolve you! I absolve you all!”
When I was fourteen and watched the Oscars, everything changed.
I wanted to be Salieri.
F. Murray Abraham who plays Salieri won the award for Best Actor, beating out Tom Hulce who portrays Amadeus. In Academy Awards history, the role of Salieri will never be forgotten. Amadeus lost. Hulce’s performance will never be as esteemed. Abraham went on to receive great stage roles on Broadway and even now, after all these years, shows up in popular, edgy HBO thrillers like Homeland.
No one else could have been a greater embodiment of the character than Hulce. I never heard much about him again. Amadeus mostly disappeared. Hulce has directed a few mediocre TV shows. He did come out of the closet. I know he inspired me to publicly tell people I was gay. Which was a pretty brave thing to do in the mid-to-late 80s. Maybe his openness limited his acting options. I want to believe it did. The idea of him disappearing from film just because saddens me.
Perhaps maturity is realizing that you can’t tell any difference between your successes and failures, the losers from the winners.
The Blues Brothers (1980):
I always wanted to be Aretha Franklin. I can’t count the number of times I watched her big musical number. She plays a waitress at a greasy-spoon restaurant. Her lughead of a boyfriend demands that she cook him a meal. After all, he says, he is “the man and she is the woman.” She responds in the perfect way. She sings “Respect.” With a trio of singers, she struts around the restaurant, pushing him back with the simple wave of her finger. She moves in a way that’s unique to her; it’s not overly forceful. There’s a lag between her steps. She knows things are going her way; there’s no reason to exhaust herself. Once a roommate walked in on me when I thought I was alone. I was imitating Aretha’s steady, undisturbed gait. She said, “What are you doing? It looks like you’re walking underwater.”
In high school, I considered my classmates to be Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers, the ones from the monster movie C.H.U.D. They, too, seemed to rise from the ground and latch on to my feet, tripping me, laughing when my head hit and dented the locker. The leader apologized after his horde disappeared. He leaned in and kissed me. My teeth knocked against his. He held the sides of my head and said, “I want to give you my tongue.” I took it. I was willing to take a lot back then. Afterwards, I went into the bathroom. I didn’t wipe the drool from my face. Never has being devoured felt so good. My tooth was chipped. Two days later I went to the dentist.
Dirty Dancing (1987):
During high school, I was obsessed with speech team. I loved getting up in front of a room full of people and a judge and recite an oratorical declamation. Words were my music.
I was having the time of my life. I wish I could say I wanted to be a dancer. I’ve always felt out of touch with my body.
Once I was in a final round at a speech tournament. I was competing in a stand-up comedy category. There was a competitor who was better than me. Before things began, he said, “I’m better than you. Good luck anyway.”
I disappeared into the bathroom. When I came back out, I went up to him and told him his speech coach needed to talk to him. He asked why.
“Your mother died,” I said.
He immediately started crying. “I knew it was going to happen. She has been ill. But I didn’t expect it to happen now,” he said.
He walked away and didn’t make it in time to perform. My lie worked. I won. Nobody puts baby in the corner.
The Elephant Man (1980):
Do we all feel like the Elephant Man until we find someone who loves us? And is that feeling more than universal but infinite? Or, to evoke the final scene in David Lynch’s film, are we waiting to hear our planetary maternal force tell us “no one will ever die” in order to know that we are as safe as a wounded child in a lonely bed?
Unlike me, my husband is not a crier. I’ve seen him cry only a handful of times in the 15 + years we’ve been together. That final scene in The Elephant Man always gets to him. Does he feel that he’s never found the love he wanted, even in me? Is he waiting for something greater? Is he disappointed in his willingness to settle for someone doomed always to be curiously earthbound?
Friday the 13th (1980):
I loved watching beautiful people die.
No one knew who I was supposed to be for Halloween. They badgered me over and over again, threatening to rip off my toga if I did not tell them.
I did not tell them.
I kept silent.
The next day no one brought it up. And even if someone had, I wouldn’t have said anything. Silence was crucial for me to master if I was ever to become wise.
The next Halloween I dressed up as Maria Shriver. Everyone got it right away.
The Hitcher (1986):
If a serial killer in a movie kidnaps the hero’s girlfriend and chains her hands to a bumper of one semi-truck, her feet to a different truck, we expect she’ll be saved. Nobody thinks that he’ll fail, that in this one case she’ll really, truly get pulled apart.
Nobody expects to snap.
In my late 30s, I went into psychosis for the first time. For months, I couldn’t sleep, concentrate, sit still, etc. No doctor could figure out what was wrong. I convinced myself that a Christmas stocking held a key to my illness. I told my husband that all the doctors had to do was stare at the stocking long enough for a secret sign; everything would then be solved. My husband said I would be healed as long as I didn’t talk about the stocking. When I was alone with a doctor, I’d take it out of my backpack and try to explain.
One neurologist said, “Why don’t you leave the stocking with me? I’ll run some blood tests on it.”
“Do you think I’m crazy?” I said. “You can’t run blood tests on a stocking.”
One day I went to Arby’s and ordered a sandwich with fries. I became paralyzed I’d find something in them: hairs, dead bugs, and yes, even possibly — though I knew the chances were next to none — a severed finger.
I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982):
What queer kid doesn’t like musicals? When I opened the newspaper and saw the title I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, I knew it was a must-see.
“I’m not going to take you to see that,” my mother said. “It’s not what you think it is.”
“I must see it,” I said. “Musicals make me happy. And we both know I’m not a happy kid.”
“You’re not going,” she said. “I’m your mother. I know what’s best for you. This is one of those times when you have to listen to me.”
The movie theatre was located down the block. The film was starting in ten minutes. I insisted.
“Fine,” she said. “I warned you.” She was pissed. She kept her arms folded. She refused to look at me.
We made it just in time. You could tell she wished she had stalled. She did not want to see this movie. It was worse that it was with me.
My mother stared at me on and off for the entire running time. She was trying to read my facial expressions. She wanted to hear that I should have trusted her.
The movie is NOT a musical.
The film is about a successful documentarian named Barbara. She’s a little high-strung. And then she becomes even more high-strung. She slowly grows addicted to sedatives. She decides to film a documentary about a woman who is dying of cancer. Barbara wants to give people hope. She doesn’t want her movie to be relentlessly depressing. The cancer victim sees a rough cut of the film. She’s enraged. She hates it. She tells Barbara that it’s a lie. She tells Barbara she has no talent. Barbara’s depressed. Her addiction to drugs begins to become overwhelming. She decides to stop cold turkey. he attacks her husband. He ties her to a chair. She ends up being institutionalized.
“So what did you think?” my mother asked. She put her hands on her hips.
I had no choice. I had to tell the truth. There was no other option except the truth.
I loved it.
These days I may be a fat, middle-aged gay man. But when I was younger, I was lithe and quick, always eager to go swimming. My mother taught me. She says that she learned from growing up in an orphanage with many, many other children. They didn’t have time to give all the kids lessons even though one of their primary outings was to go to a swimming pool. It was a cheap activity. The supervisors would demand that all the kids get into the pool; the ones who didn’t would literally be thrown into it. “Sink or swim,” they’d say. My mother swam. She taught me how to do the same. Swimming is fine when you want to do it. But sometimes the world outside your home can feel like it’s just nincompoops pushing you into a pool, demanding that you panic over yet another fake shark. Swimming for your life can get exhausting. There are times when you feel tired and you want to go home.
The Karate Kid (1984):
Esther, my best friend in high school, found out that Ralph Macchio loved mandarin oranges. This fact was in People magazine. At one point, I could have told you the page number. Esther was obsessed with him. It was all we talked about.
I had never had a mandarin orange. I told this to Esther. “Not too many people like them. They’re a delicacy. Like caviar,” she said.
She became eerily invested in losing weight. She went on a new diet. She called it the mandarin orange diet. For a week, all she ate was mandarin oranges and protein shakes. It worked.
And then she stopped eating altogether.
Her parents took her to the hospital where they force-fed her. She couldn’t keep anything down. No one could solve the problem. Whenever she came back to school, she didn’t stay long. She fainted a lot. During lunch, she’d always go to the bathroom. She smelled funny when she came back.
Once I took out a small can of mandarin oranges from my backpack. “Remember these?” I said.
She knocked them out of my hand. “I’m not stupid,” she said. “You can’t trick me to put food in my mouth.”
She never talked to me again. She ended up being the first person I knew who died.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986):
If I could be reincarnated, I would want to come back as a Venus flytrap. The sheer spectacle of a talking plant with huge teeth killing dumb people was something not to be missed. I remember sitting feet away from the movie screen wanting to touch the plant’s teeth, wondering how the special-effects men managed to create such a believable look.
I’m obsessed with teeth. For me, that’s what I find to be most sexy: when someone has nice, clean, upstanding teeth. We grew up poor. When we became poorer, we stopped going to the dentist. For twenty years, I didn’t have a check-up. I didn’t do anything until I noticed that after every meal blood was in my mouth. The mashing of food irritated my gums no matter how slowly I went, how careful I was. Now my gums remain destroyed even after a half a dozen deep scalings, graftings.
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984):
My brother and I have an estranged relationship. For fifteen years, we haven’t seen or talked to each other. During our childhood, we bonded over movies. We lived in the middle of nowhere and drove our bikes to see The Muppets Take Manhattan. We both agreed that this was our favorite Muppet movie, because they were the star of the show; in the other films, they were often reduced to being mere props for the boring humans. When it came out on VHS, we watched the film at least fifty times, reciting the lines together. For us, it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
We assigned the roles ahead of time and always performed gracefully, never once stepping on the other’s lines. Except for one. We both always wanted the role of Janice, the hippy saxophone player. My favorite scene is when the Muppets are all struggling to find an agent willing to take them on. Broke, they decide to crash at the bowling alley, catching some shut-eye in the lockers. Janice says: “I get the one with the Jacuzzi.” My brother and I have never laughed harder in our lives. He became an accountant. He always goes to Las Vegas. He still hasn’t moved out of his townhouse. I wonder how hard he plays at the casinos. Would he ever have enough for a Jacuzzi? If he owned one, would it give me the sense of security that he’ll always be OK?
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983):
My family and I never went on vacation. Anywhere. Unless you count the local Putt-Putt golf course. I remember watching National Lampoon’s Vacation and thinking it was the strangest satire; even with all the bad things that happen to them — a dog murdered by the family’s failure to remember it was tied to the car bumper; being stranded in the desert; Christie Brinkley almost tempting Chevy Chase into adultery — it was hard for me to feel sorry for them. They were a family and they were on vacation. Their destination, Wally World, was obviously a play off Disney World, which was always my dream. Decades later, my husband took me there. His father always took his family. There was a sweet, elegiac feel to the trip. As we went through the endless lines to ride on the Tower of Terror and the Haunted Mansion, we laughed at all the tombstones etched with silly puns. His father loved cornball humor. “Here Lies Henry Blake, He Stepped on the Gas Instead of the Brake.” I would usually be cynical, but it brought back so many good memories. loved Disney’s sentimentality and spectacle — two things which make America America. I never felt so proud to be an American as when I was there, saluting Mickey Mouse, watching the fireworks, admiring all the nuclear families that would disintegrate over time.
On Golden Pond (1981):
I fear my husband’s death all the time. I talk about it so regularly that my husband finds it creepy, joking that I might be looking forward to it. It’s just the opposite. I can’t bring myself to watch On Golden Pond. The domestic drama revolves around an aging couple (Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn) who live in their lake house every summer. Their daughter played by Jane Fonda visits. Unsurprisingly, family conflicts ensue, especially when it’s revealed the father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
The idea of my husband slipping into senility is too much for me. I promise myself that, no matter what, I’d take care of him, even if it meant I’d have to prop him up in the blue recliner and watch him gaze out the window for hours on end. Sometimes when he watches TV, I watch him watching TV. I’m always relieved when I ask him a stupid question about a show and he can organize all the plotlines with such dexterity, even if he’s tired, ready to go to bed with me. I figure if he loses his mind, we’ll skip the dramas and move on to the half-hour sitcoms, and if he can’t follow those we’ll just watch the commercials, selling us something we once thought we needed.
I didn’t have sex in high school. And then AIDS hit. So I waited some more.
My friend was an extra in Quicksilver, a film about a manipulative stockbroker, who through one dumb move, loses everything and decides to become a professional bike messenger for a speed delivery firm. I’m still jealous that my friend got to see Kevin Bacon whizzing around streets among crowds of on-lookers.
Screw the people who boasted they were a mere six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I was two.
A definition of desire: seeing Kevin Bacon race past you for a film he knows will flop. He’ll have no choice but to look back over his shoulder and make sure you’re still there.
Romancing the Stone (1984):
My mother owned thousands of used Harlequin romances. She put them in bookshelves which plastered our walls in almost every room. It never occurred to my mother to write one herself. My father mocked her, demanding that he tell her why she needed to own more than one. They were the same old story, no?
In Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner plays a romance novelist who finds her life becoming intertwined with gun-toting henchmen, an exotic bird smuggler, and gaudy jewelry. About ten minutes before the end of the movie, my mother turned to me and said, “We need to leave.”
“But they haven’t kissed yet,” I said.
“We need to leave,” she said.
She told me she never liked to see the final minutes of a romantic movie. She confessed that she never reads the final pages of her romances. That’s why she can read them over and over again.
I like to believe that if you don’t make it to the end, there’s always something one can mistake for possibility.
She’s Having a Baby (1988):
Good for her.
The Terminator (1984):
How maudlin is it that whenever I hear Arnold Schwarzenegger’s German accent, I imagine my biological mother who I will never meet? How shameful is it to admit that the plot of The Terminator matters more than any of its stunning action sequences? How embarrassing is it to confess that I wept during the tacked-on epilogue of a woman making a tape recorded message for her son who she will never encounter?
At the heart of The Terminator is the story of a mother and a son doomed to never know one another. We all know the simple premise: a mother gives birth to a son who will become a hero in the fight to kill the machines that are taking over the human world. It is possible to shuttle through space and time to alter a small detail in human history that will change everything forever. That’s why the mother must abandon her son: he won’t feel the obligation to take care of her. He will go on his solo journey and become a leader. Mankind hangs in the balance.
I imagine what my mother would say in such a message to me. With my luck, I wouldn’t be able to hear her words. Somehow they’d be garbled. Things get messed up when you’re ricocheting through galaxies and eons. What if all I heard was the beat of silence that occurred as she went to press the stop button?
Even worse, what if I answered that is more than enough when all I wanted to hear was I’ll be back?
Under the Cherry Moon (1986):
When my parents die, I will not receive an inheritance. Which doesn’t bother me. I’ve never had any money and I never will. This fact never stopped me from dreaming of being Kristen Scott Thomas in Under the Cherry Moon. She plays a woman who inherits a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday.
There’s only one catch: a gigolo named Christopher Tracy (played by Prince) and his partner-in-crime Tricky plan to seduce her and steal all her money.
Who wouldn’t want to be swindled by Prince?
When the film began, my mother nudged me and asked me to tell someone that there was something wrong with the print. She didn’t know it was filmed in black and white.
“Only old people watch movies that way,” she said. “I’m paying for brightness. For hope.”
You are a geeky president of a television company, determined to find a ways of boosting falling ratings. You begin to receive access to some weird cable shows from a station in Malaysia which no one seems to have heard of. The images are of anonymous people being raped and murdered. You find out that there’s a plot by an evil conglomeration to fill the airwaves with shows that somehow have the ability to cause cancer in the viewing audience.
None of this feels real. It must be a nightmare. You wish you were sleeping. But you know you’re awake when a slit appears in your stomach. The slit is so big you can fit a VHS cassette inside. So why not try? You grab a cassette and shove it into the slit. Somehow the images on the tape appear on the TV screen a few feet away from you.
For the first time in your life, you are on.
I can still remember my first manic episode. It happened during graduate school when I was in Utah. This was the symptom: I couldn’t stop walking. I had to be in motion. I ditched the classes I was supposed to teach. Standing in front of a classroom felt dangerous. Someone could get me.
I walked for miles. I called up my boyfriend and told him that I couldn’t stop walking, that I didn’t know what was happening, that I was so determined to keep moving I found myself failing to obey traffic lights. I didn’t look both ways before I crossed the street.
When I could calm down, I called teachers and doctors and told them that I was terrified. Something was happening to my body.
I never slept. One day I woke up and everything felt strange. I called my boyfriend and he said, “Did you hear? Did you hear?” and I said, “Hear what?” And he said, “The Twin Towers collapsed.”
Before he told me about the crashes, I always fantasized about being in the middle of a World War. It seemed like a cool thing. From time to time, I thought about the movie WarGames and how everything fell apart because of one entitled teenager. Matthew Broderick plays a kid who hacks into the wrong computer at the wrong time and almost accidentally starts a war with Russia.
In my paranoia, I couldn’t help but think: Am I the one who brought this on?
I wasn’t sure what this was.
All I know: Hours later, when I went to the hospital, I thought I was dying of a heart attack. Everything was crazy. The emergency room was in chaos. Everyone had something wrong with them. Everyone was suffering. The Twin Towers were ruining everything.
Except me. I suddenly felt much better. I’m not any more damaged than anyone else.
For the first time, life felt like the ending to WarGames. Everything was as simple as “the draw” in a tic-tac-toe game. There was only one mystery: For the first time in days, was I somehow ahead of the game?
An item on my bucket list: one complete whirl around a roller rink.
I’ve always wanted my life to become a dizzying blur of scantily clad men, neon lights, and Olivia Newton John’s smile. Once every couple of years, I come close to that. And then it disappears. As quickly as the romantic musical Xanadu left the theatres.
But it doesn’t matter to me. When Olivia Newton John and Michael Beck kiss for the first time, the movie bursts into an extended animated sequence. A tornado sweeps them away, somehow managing to shrink them to a size small enough to allow them to stand on top of a blooming rose. They both jump and transform into bright fishes, happy to be teasing one another in the water, only to soon morph into birds flying high. One of them crash-lands into the sea only to be saved by the other. And finally, they both find their way back to the original rose where they kiss and disappear.
I thought to myself: This is love. I still replay that scene in my mind, on my computer. I never tell my husband this. I want to keep it all to myself.
To be an academic is to always ward off the sentimental. Xanadu taught me otherwise. It taught me sometimes you need to be a bird or a fish or on top of a stupid rose.
I’ve always been confused as to why Barbara Streisand’s metamorphosis from young woman to young man was successful. I admire her character to gender switch in order to continue to study the Talmud after her father dies. She wants to learn even though strict Jewish religion doesn’t allow women to participate.
But exactly how big a suspension of disbelief does one need to take in order to fall for her trickery?
I have no idea. In some scenes, the transformation looks convincing; from others, it’s completely preposterous. I had the same reaction to Dolly Parton’s breasts in Rhinestone. I could never quite tell if they were real. Once I confessed my confusion to my father. He said, “When it comes to tits, you just give in and believe.”
I’m an obsessive person. At least four times I went to the theatre to watch Yentl. I tried to figure out under what lighting, what settings she looked best. I wrote all my observations in a notebook. I tallied the results. I wanted to find a pattern. I never did. It was and still remains a mystery. Perhaps this is why I write personal essays, trying to find that pattern, catch the right angle. Am I convincing? Papa, do you see me?
Maybe, just maybe? Maybe once, if the light is just right?
Who would have thought that Scott Baio would play a brilliant high school-aged scientist who would conduct experiments such as one that tries to see how long mice could swim underwater if they drank Jack Daniel’s? And that he’d access telekinetic powers he could use to induce women to lift up their shirts and flash him? And convince his mother that he was possessed by the devil?
I thank films like Zapped. Art movies usually tell us what we already know; life sentences us to loneliness and death. I need to see the unforeseeable. I need to be surprised by the world. I need to believe there is abundance. I need to know Chachi can live forever.
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