Well, Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas season has finally begun. Have you got your tree up yet? Have you started your present shopping?? Have you found yourself reaching for the eggnog yet???
Even though I have been an occupant of this planet for over 50 years now, the Christmas season still remains as magical to me as it did when I was a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Jean Shepherd was wiser than he knew when he proclaimed in that classic yuletide movie A Christmas Story (1983) “Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas around which the entire kid year revolved.” Amen! And it is still that way for adults too.
So as the turkey leftovers disappear and the meager Thanksgiving decorations come down (usually just a cornucopia on the dining room table), I find myself asking how did I know that the Christmas season was finally here back when I was a kid?
Here are my top 10 indicators that Christmas was on its way:
10. Thanksgiving night usually featured the annual showing of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) the story of how one year Kris Kringle became the Macy’s Santa Claus. It was the perfect holiday transition movie because its story began on Thanksgiving morning and ended on Christmas day. Edmund Gwinn is perfect in his Oscar-winning role and was there ever a more realistic movie child on screen than Natalie Wood’s Susan Walker, just the right blend of child-like hope and real life cynicism. Her mantra (“I believe. I believe. It’s silly but I believe.”) has proved very useful over the years. And there was just enough holiday magic thrown in to get you to believe.
9. My family started listening to holiday music on our stereo. Out came the special albums played that one month of the year, collections like Columbia Records’ The Great Songs of Christmas and Christmas With Clark (available at your local Clark gas station when you filled up your tank!) featuring “Don Janse and his 60 voice children’s chorus.”
But the first collection we always listened to was our 8-track tape of Christmas songs recorded off the radio and the first song on that tape was Perry Como’s “There Is No Christmas Like a Home Christmas”.
8. The Wish Book catalogs from Sears and JC Penney arrived in the mail! My sisters and I took turns leafing through its pages (forget those stupid clothes sections!) and going crazy at all the toys available. We would dutifully write our names beside each item we wanted. In later years, Mom asked that we institute a star system to indicate what we MOST wanted that year.
7. My elementary school teachers started hanging up classroom decorations. They included cardboard cutouts of Santa Claus and Nativity scenes. Some even erected small Christmas trees in the corner of the classroom. And we drew names out of the hat to see which student we would get a Secret Santa gift for. But the decorations I enjoyed the most were these:
6. Companies would start airing Christmas themed commercials both on TV and on the radio. Back in the 1970s when we lived in Weirton, West Virginia, there was a local furniture store named Heslop’s.. One year, their holiday jingle was “Deck the halls with furniture from Heslop’s. Fa-lalalala La la la la.” My father would sing it for years after every time the season began. I guess it just stuck in my brain.
5. Mom would apply Glass Wax Christmas stencils to our front windows. Was there anything more festive????
4. Celebrity Christmas specials began airing on TV. It seemed like anybody who was anybody had a Christmas special back then. Even Bob Hope had a regular special entertaining the troops in Vietnam. For me, it seemed the best ones were the ones hosted by Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Nothing could get me into the spirit of the season faster than Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas”. And there was nothing like Perry Como singing “Ava Maria”.
3. Mom started making holiday cookies and holiday snacks. My favorites were the Spritz cookies and the meatballs in grape jelly.
2. Animated holiday specials began showing on TV. I am glad to have grown up in the heyday of the animated Christmas special. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) all debuted before I was ten. But the Holy Grail of specials for me was and remains Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). That’s a lot of my childhood up there on the screen in that special (without the red nose and the ability to fly). In my dark days of school bullying and peer ostracizing, it was Rudolph who gave me hope that better days lay ahead. And it is a message I carry with me to this day.
1. We finished decorating our Christmas tree by putting our nativity set under the tree. We were one of those families that used the Thanksgiving holiday to get a jumpstart on Christmas decorating. We had used an artificial tree since the mid-1960s so putting it up early was a no brainer. And the final touch was placing the red skirt around the tree and placing the nativity scene at the base (pictured below)
I would then sit under the tree, stare up at the lights and decorations, listen to the music of the season and anticipate with a smile the magic that lay ahead.
So what did YOU do as a child to get the holiday season started? What traditions helped you get into the holiday mood?
I spent last Sunday afternoon at the Detroit Film Theatre watching the “Extended Director’s Version” of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The movie is a wonderful masterpiece. Leone’s last film which has had a troubled and tempestuous history, particularly here in America. On the surface, it is a movie about Jewish gangsters and their time in the sun during Prohibition in the 1930s. But underneath the plot (the romances and the shoot outs and the violence) what it is is a movie about friendship and memory, how both evolve over the course of our lives and not always for the better. The movie does this by moving back and forth through time from the gang’s heyday in 1933 to their poor childhood on New York’s lower east side in 1921 to 1968 when the surviving characters are looking back and trying to make sense of their past through the prism of old age.
When America first came out, I was jazzed about it because it marked Sergio Leone’s first movie in twelve years. It was a big expensive epic about America and it had a brilliant director striving to make his greatest film, something I am still a big sucker for: a filmmaker trying to make the Great American Film. It had a huge impressive cast led by some of my favorite actors like Robert De Niro and James Woods. It had the makings of a classic. I had no idea it was going to turn into a personal touchstone for both me and my late father.
The first time I saw the film was out in Minnesota in June 1984. I was in my fourth summer working at Valleyfair Amusement Park. I had read about the clashes between Leone and his American distributor, the financially troubled Ladd Company. How they had taken it out of Leone’s hands and edited it down from the director’s 3 hour 47 minute version to one running 2 hours 24 minutes. And how they rearranged the movie into chronological order so that it told its story straight from 1921 to 1933 to 1968.
When I showed up to see it by myself at the Southdale General Cinema in Minneapolis, I knew it was a cutup mess but I was prepared to love it anyway. And I did. Even though I knew it was not what Leone intended, it still placed 6th on my list of 1984’s ten best movies, even as it ended up being one of the year’s biggest bombs sending the Ladd Company into bankruptcy. In a decade when it was still unusual for anything other than a big hit to be released on VHS or for another version of a recent movie to show up again in theaters, I never expected to see Leone’s original vision.
So I was stunned when the Detroit Film Theatre announced they would be showing Leone’s original version in January 1985. I was in! I was NOT going to miss this. A chance to see Leone’s preferred cut in my favorite art house theater? Oh yes, baby! Yes, yes, yes. I planned to go by myself because I did not want ANYONE to come between me and the movie. And afterward I planned to drive over to Detroit’s Greektown and take myself out to my favorite restaurant there, the Olympia, the one my parents used to take me to before……….before………
…….OK, I need to back up here and fill in some personal blanks.
Back in March 1984, my father moved out of our house and my parents started rather acrimonious divorce proceedings against each other. The only reason I had gone back to Valleyfair that summer was to escape all that. As 1984 came to an end, the divorce and the acrimony were still an every day part of my life. I was doing anything I could to escape it. An evening by myself seeing Once Upon a Time in America seemed just what the doctor ordered.
And then my mother did something that surprised me to this day. She asked me to please take my father along to the movie. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t want to at first. I was still mad at him for a variety of divorce related reasons. But I knew it would be the nice thing to do. Dad and I had watched a million movies together prior to the divorce. Not so much since. Many of the movies Dad wanted me to watch were gangster movies. He loved gangster movies. Me? Not so much.
So I called him up and asked if he wanted to go. And he seemed really happy to say yes. On the evening of the showing, Dad came to pick me up. He was wearing a suit. Say what? We drove down to Detroit together. We saw the movie with a near full house and it was great. It filled in the blanks and questions that the first version had raised. Dad thoroughly enjoyed it: laughing at the comedy moments (for a violent gangster film, it has a number of funny lines),thrilling at the action scenes and letting the vast sweeping crowd scenes take our breath away. Leone was one of the great film virtuosos.
And even though it was a 4-hour movie experience that ended around 11pm, Dad asked if I wanted to go get something to eat. I said yes. And we ended up over at the Olympia restaurant that I had planned to go to anyway. And we had a long leisurely dinner. I asked my father why he liked gangster movies so much and for the first time ever he opened up about his childhood. How much of it back in the 1930s and 1940s was spent running the streets with other boys like we had just seen the lead characters do in America. And how he grew up loving the gangster movies of the time starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, etc. They seemed so glamorous, those gangsters, the fantasy version of how he and his friends wanted to be if they could just get out of their small Indiana town. For the first time, I understood my father’s background a little clearer and I understood him a little better. That night was the beginning of our adult relationship. No longer father to son but man to man.
We started seeing each other more often. We started to go see movies again. We starting to go to dinner. We started chatting on the phone again.
As the years went by, Once Upon a Time in America, despite its length, became one of those movies my father and I shared over and over. When it came out on VHS, I got it for him. When it came out on DVD, we got it for each other. I was surprised to learn that the DVD was actually the slightly longer 3 hour and 50 minute version Leone screened at Cannes back in 1984. It had a bit more violence and a bit more sexuality.
In the fall of 2014, I found out Leone’s “Extended Director’s Edition” running 4 hours and 20 minutes was coming out on DVD. I knew immediately what I was getting Dad for Christmas! So I bought it and looked forward to sharing it again with him. But then Dad died rather suddenly four days before Christmas. He didn’t get to open his presents that year. And the copy that I got him ended up back with me. It was not easy opening up the shrink wrap and watching it for the first time alone.
So when I found out a couple weeks ago that the DFT was showing Leone’s extended cut, I knew I had to go. To see one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite directors once again. In one of my favorite theaters. And to spend time with my father in the only way I can now. As I sat in the theater on Sunday I pretended my father was sitting there with me. I tried to remember the parts where he'd laughed.
I pretended that many of my friends who I no longer see but once saw films with at the DFT were there with me too. It made the nearly empty balcony seem crowded. It made me smile and it made me melancholy all at the same time. A funny turn of events for a gangster movie about relationships and memories.
And yet oddly appropriate as I look back on my own past – the people that have gone, the people that have stayed, and the people I still miss. Part of getting old, I guess.
Today, it started............
I began writing a book called Sunday Nights With Walt which is to be published by Theme Park Press. It is a celebration of the classic TV shows Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and The Wonderful of World of Disney. How they colored and changed my generation.
Here is where I need your help --
What episodes from this series stand out in your memory?
Which were they and why have they stuck in your mind?
Please reply in the comment section below or on Facebook.
Thanks your help!
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. On this day back in 1941, in the span of about two hours, planes from the Japanese Navy surprised the U.S. Pacific Fleet at their base in Hawaii, inflicted considerable damage including the loss of over 2000 lives, and plunged the United States into World War II. So many words have been written about this moment in time that I could not possibly add to it from a historical perspective. So today, I want to address it from a purely personal one: as a kid I was obsessed with Pearl Harbor.
I don’t really remember when or how the obsession started. Back in the early 1970s, World War II was not that far back in our collective past: only 30 years back which is roughly the same amount of time between now and the first Gulf War back in 1991. Most of my uncles were WWII vets. Pretty much all of my male teachers were WWII vets. I even took a class on World War II during my senior year at Pontiac Central High School taught by a veteran of the Pacific war.
It is also possible that my obsession was geographical. Growing up in West Virginia, the state celebrated its strong connection to Pearl Harbor – seeing as how the battleship USS West Virginia was one of the ships present and sunk that day.
Of course, they end up in the middle of the attack but they rise to the challenge, dodging bullets and rescuing sailors from the sinking ships on Battleship Row. And, of course, Mike’s new sailboat ends up sinking along with the other ships of the Pacific Fleet. The illustration of Mike crying as his boat sinks beneath the waves is seared on my youthful brain.
But, by far, my favorite book on the subject at the Weirton Library was the official U.S. Navy Report on Pearl Harbor: a big thick book in blue binding that could not be checked out because it was part of the Reference section. So I spent several weekends sitting in the library reading that book from cover to cover. It was devoted just as much to the aftermath of the attack as to the causes and featured a ton of photographs about the salvaging of the ships that I have never seen before or since.
My obsession manifested itself in other ways. Naturally, I bought and made the Revell models of the USS Arizona and USS Pennsylvania. In fact, between the various battleships, aircraft carriers, troop transports, cargo ships, cruisers, and destroyer models I built, I could (and did) put my own private Pacific Fleet to sea on the floor of my bedroom.
But that still wasn’t good enough.
Finally, I did what any red-blooded nerd of eight would do in that situation: I built my own Pearl Harbor. Using nothing but a pencil and a whole lot of notebook paper. I drew the major geographic points of the harbor: Ford Island, Pearl City, Hospital Point, the dry docks, the various docks and piers then drew the significant buildings that occupied those sites. I drew the adjacent airfields of Hickam and Wheeler Fields. I drew the Scofield Barracks across the street from Wheeler Field. For each ship, it was not enough to just draw a ship, I had to draw the ship EXACTLY how it looked – not an easy thing to find out in the pre-internet days. It required a lot of trips back to the library to consult the big blue book. And, if a ship was damaged or sunk, I made a separate drawing showing how the ship looked after that.
Having done all of that, I laid out my own personal Pearl Harbor on the floor of our family living room (one of the most versatile rooms I ever knew. I will have to share a post about that some day). My mother’s only rule was whatever I laid out on the floor had to be picked up by the end of the same day.
And so, I would use my Pearl Harbor assembled entirely out of notebook paper to recreate the attack in my head with each ship sinking in the correct order as wave after wave of invisible Japanese planes strafed the floor of our living room. The capsizing of the Oklahoma and the Utah. The sinking of the California and the West Virginia. The unimaginable explosion of the Arizona which literally ripped that great battleship in half. The explosion of the destroyer Shaw. The Nevada making its break for the sea only to beach at Hospital Point rather than risk getting sunk in (and blocking) the narrow harbor entrance. The whole thing was very portable. It all fit inside a large 11 x 14 legal envelope.
Then, at the height of my Pearl Harbor madness, 20th Century- Fox came out with Tora, Tora, Tora! (1970) – a $20 million dollar ($300 million today!) epic recreation of that day which will always live in infamy.
Of course, I wanted to see it. I desperately wanted to see it – but my mother decreed that I was too young to see it. So I had to wait for that day – some day in the future – when it might end up on TV.
It didn’t help that most of my elementary school friends saw it and endlessly talked about it at the bus stop. Mostly they talked about the humorous true moments in the film. They liked to laugh about the Nevada’s band continuing to play “The Star Spangled Banner” even as the attack started around them, only playing at an increasingly faster tempo. They loved the scene where a female flight instructor teaching a teenager how to fly found herself in the middle of the incoming Japanese squadron. “I’ll take over now, Davey!” became one of those catch phrases that always got a laugh in my elementary school yard.
Finally, after three years of waiting, I learned that Tora, Tora, Tora! was going to premiere on the CBS Friday Night Movie in the Fall of 1973.
I was ecstatic. I was beyond ecstasy. I pleaded with my parents to allow me to move the portable color TV from their bedroom down to the living room so I could set up my living room Pearl Harbor and watch the movie there, all while recording each ship as it went below the waves in the movie. They, naturally, agreed.
It was one of the greatest nights of my childhood that I have almost forgot about. And it marked the high water mark of my Pearl Harbor obsession. After that, I began to pull my Pearl Harbor out of its manila envelope less and less. My Revell Pacific Fleet stayed more or less permanently anchored on the shelves of my room. I moved on to my next obsessions. In later years, I threw out my notebook paper Pearl. The model ships went in the garbage when I moved away from home. But Pearl Harbor has remained a real and memorable part of my childhood just as it continues to have a hold on our nation’s imagination.
Besides Tora, Tora, Tora! the 1970s saw other Pearl Harbor related productions like the major miniseries Pearl (1976) and From Here To Eternity (1977) – which briefly became a TV series. There was Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979) which took a comedic look at the war scare hysteria Pearl Harbor caused west coast Americans who feared the Japanese would invade at any moment. And there was The Final Countdown (1980) which imagined what would happen if a modern nuclear aircraft carrier mysteriously traveled back in time to that day in 1941. Would it use its jet planes and modern weapons to stop the attack? Or would it let history play out the way it did?
For my money, the two best films about the attack – besides Tora, Tora, Tora! – remain the original From Here To Eternity (1953) which brilliantly captures what life was like in our peacetime military before the attack and WWII altered it forever. The other is In Harm’s Way (1965), a bit of a rambling John Wayne war epic whose Act I is devoted entirely to the attack. It nicely captures the shock and awe experienced by everyone on that fateful Sunday morning. (Sorry, but Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) is a big, lumbering, interminable mess).
So why does Pearl Harbor stick with us 75 years after the events of that day? Why was I so obsessed with it for awhile in my childhood? I don’t know if I know the answer but I suspect it has to do with the same reasons all disasters stick with us whether it is the Titanic or the Challenger explosion or 9/11. For some of us, it is a chance to play arm chair quarterback, to go back and piece together the trail of intelligence that shows how the people in authority SHOULD have known what was about to happen, another chance to show how incompetent our government is. For others, it is a chance to take inspiration from the countless acts of heroism performed that day by sailors, soldiers, and civilians who found themselves rousted out of bed by the first bombs and rose to the challenge. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” a naval chaplain blurted out during the attack and it became a national catchphrase for a time.
But I think the real reason Pearl Harbor continues to haunt our minds is because there is always that moment before the attack happened, , where the possibility of an entirely different future hangs in the balance as a real possibility before events spun history down the path we find ourselves on today. The Pacific Fleet gets the warnings and is ready. The Titanic sees the iceberg a minute earlier. The 9/11 hijackers are identified and stopped before they can board the planes. Thousands of lives are saved; some of the worst events in history are averted. And we are allowed to pretend that our lives could continue in some innocent utopian Eden unsullied by the events of the past 75 years.
Every generation has a moment when they lost their innocence. For many of us of a certain age, it is the Kennedy assassination. For others, it is 9/11. For the Greatest Generation, it is Pearl Harbor. When we honor events like Pearl Harbor (or any cataclysmic event) we are not only mourning the loss of life but also our own lost notion of a different, better “what if” before history stepped in and wrote our future (now present day) in unchangeable stone.
Tora, Tora, Tora! (1970) will be aired tonight on TCM at 8pm EST.
EMPIRE magazine (I’m a subscriber) regularly interviews actors and directors using the questions below. I thought I would answer them myself:
1) Which character were you in your first school play?
I played Pongo the Dalmatian dog from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. I had a store bought costume and everything. No lines though.
2) Do you have a signature dish?
I make a really great homemade pizza. Also do a great plum pudding at Christmastime.
3) Which movie have you seen the most?
That one is really hard to answer. There are so many I have seen over and over and I don’t really keep track. I suspect it is either Jaws (1975) or Apollo 13 (1995).
4) Which is the last TV show you gave up on?
American Horror Story last Wednesday. Too many characters going out of their way to be mean to each other. I was rooting for the ghosts.
5) When were you last naked outdoors?
I believe never.
6) Do you have a nickname?
Many, most of them I am not going to repeat. My father called me either “Buddy” or “Richrock”. I’ll go with them.
7) Have you ever knowingly broken the law?
Every time I get behind the wheel. But only by 5 miles per hour.
8) What’s the worst smell in the world?
A dead body that’s been rotting for a few days. I won’t tell you how I know this.
9) Have you ever written fan mail to anyone?
I have. I wrote a letter to Robert Redford once. And to Michael Cimino. Also Peter H. Hunt, the director of 1776 (1972). Also Bill Clinton when he was elected president. Hunt and Clinton wrote back.
10) How much is a pint of milk?
I don’t know. We tend to buy half-gallons.
11) On a scale of one to 10, how hairy is your butt?
I haven’t looked lately. I’m going to say 1.
12) Do you have a favorite joke?
Anyone out there care to share their answers?
I believe I started to grow into the adult I am today in the spring of 1979, all with the help of the movies and books. By that point, I was almost 17 years old. My parents had done what they could. My sisters had contributed what they did. Things all started coming to a head – doors of childhood closing & adulthood beckoning – when my father announced over a Sunday lunch that our family would be moving from West Virginia back to Michigan.
Throughout my childhood, the Rothrocks were a bit of a vagabond family. In my first 18 years, we moved five times and lived in 3 different states. I attended 6 schools in 4 different cities. It was not that my father couldn’t hold a job. He just kept getting better ones as he moved his way up the school administrator ladder from teacher to finance to superintendent.
We had lived in Jackson, Michigan from 1966 – 1968 before moving down to West Virginia. Most of my childhood passed there and I loved it: six years in the northern steel town of Weirton and 5 years in the state capital of Charleston. Then in the spring of 1979, my father got a job at Pontiac Schools and we prepared to move back to the Wolverine State.
By this time, the Rothrock family consisted of three individuals on different life paths. My two older sisters had grown up and moved on to adulthood in other states. That left Mom, Dad, and me in Charleston. But even that did not remain constant once Dad took the new job in Pontiac, Michigan.
He moved up to Michigan with the aim of starting his job and looking for a new place for us to live. That left Mom and I back in West Virginia. It is important to emphasize here that my parents were fine people who taught me most of what I know (Mom passed away in 2002 and Dad in 2014) and I loved them both very very much. But part of growing up is realizing that people can have more than one side. They can be good or bad or ugly and what constitutes the whole person is how they are most of the time. My parents were two lovely people. They just probably should not have been married to each other because they tended to bring out the worst in the other.
It didn’t help that I viewed this upcoming move with as much relish as one views the end of the world. In the midst of high school, I was having the time of my life. For the first time, I had a solid group of friends and was coming out of my introvert shell. Now it was coming to an all too soon end. All that had to happen was for our house to sell and away we would go: away from West Virginia, away from my school, away from my friends.
Consequently, I started spending as much time out as possible with my friends. With Dad in Michigan and me out on the town that left Mom home alone to begin slowly developing a drinking habit and to nurse the suspicion that Dad wasn’t in any particular hurry to find a home and move us up to Michigan.
By the spring of 1979, Mom had decided she had waited long enough and announced that we were spending spring break up in Michigan. On previous moves when Dad had had to go ahead early, he had usually rented a bedroom in some widowed woman’s house. This time around, he had taken a room in nearby Waterford at the Cascade Motel (it is now the Olde Mill Inn at the corner of Dixie Highway and Andersonville Road). He had a two-room “suite” right next to the main office. One room was a living room with a TV and a kitchenette. The other contained the bedroom and bathroom. Naturally, Mom and Dad got the bedroom. I got the sleeper sofa in the living room.
I don’t remember too many things about that week. I am sure we drove around during the day and looked at the malls and restaurants and got the general lay of the land. I know we looked at homes though I cannot recall a single one and we never did end up buying any of them. What I do remember are two things.
The first is that Dad took us out to the movies one night and this was my first trip to the Clarkston Cinema. The movie playing was The Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. Directed by Michael Crichton (before he traded in his director’s chair for the life of a best selling author), it told the true story of the first successful theft from a moving train in 1855 England. I remember it to be sprightly and suspenseful. I remember it to be gorgeously photographed by the man who was already my favorite cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth. And I remember thinking that Lesley Anne-Down did a great job filling out the curves of a black corset in a way that got my 17-year-old hormones raging.
But more important than the movie, I remember the theater and falling in love with the Clarkston Cinema right away. It was a rather small neighborhood theater, the kind that is rarely found these days. It specialized in second run fare – the movies that had finished up at the first run theaters but would stay in distribution for a few more weeks after that. This would be the first of many movies I would see at the Clarkston between 1979 and 1991 and I would treasure every one of those visits. It remains my all time favorite movie theater (and the photo at the top of my Facebook page).
The second thing I remember about that visit were the nights back at the motel. It seemed as soon as we were returned there, Mom and Dad would disappear into the bedroom and close the door. I would be left on my own to fill the time watching movies on TV or reading. At the time, I was discovering the works of William Faulkner. Some of my friends were reading his classic novel As I Lay Dying (1930). I started reading it on my own and found myself entranced by his stream of consciousness prose. Most teenagers have their literary cherry popped by J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye (1952). Mine was taken by Faulkner and I have been in love with him ever since.
When I wasn’t reading, I was watching TV. I remember having a hard time sleeping so I stayed up late watching movies. Dad had bought a new fangled invention called a VCR that could record broadcast TV onto videotape – like a cassette tape only this time it recorded pictures.
He had taped the movie Grand Prix (1966) for me, Formula One racing becoming my latest obsession. This John Frankenheimer movie had been filmed during the actual 1966 F1 season and I loved seeing on the screen the tracks I had only read about in books. And I had to admit that the life of a race driver in Europe was looking much better than my upcoming existence far from the Mountain State. Writer or racer? I couldn’t decide.
Another night, I watched Lawrence of Arabia (1962). I had seen it before and I was already a fan of the brilliant director David Lean. I marveled at his ability to transport the viewer to another time and place and make us feel as if we were realy there. How the best filmmakers could bring a distant place alive so that we could almost smell and feel it through the screech and blare of a grand prix race car or the biting whirl of a blowing dust storm in midst of the Arabian desert.
But it didn’t really matter how hard I read or how much I turned up the volume on the TV, neither could hide the noise my parents made behind their closed door. Mostly, they were fighting and bickering and while I don’t remember what they were saying, I clearly remember the tone – bitter, accusatory - neither giving an inch as they would argue hour after hour without ever getting toward any kind of resolution. Looking back, I realize now that while it certainly was not the first time nor the last when I would find myself an unwilling spectator for one of my parents’ arguments that walls could not contain, this move to Michigan was not just another new move for the Rothrocks. This was also the beginning of the end of my parents’ marriage. We would eventually buy a house in Waterford and we would eventually move there in December 1979. But things would never quite be the same and my parents would divorce 5 years later.
And what I remember more than anything about that trip was laying on that sofa bed feeling totally helpless and totally deserted. Deserted by my sisters who had done nothing wrong, just grown up and moved away, and deserted by my parents who now seemed totally consumed by their mutual power plays in which I was either the unwanted baggage or a timely pawn.
My outlook on life would brighten more in the future. I would eventually meet some of my favorite people here in Michigan who remain my best friends to this day. But I never forgot that feeling of laying there knowing that I was soon facing a life far away from all my friends and far away from anything I cared about.
The only things I would be able to hold onto were my memories and racing and books and the movies. And to enjoy all good things while they lasted because I never knew when they would end: leaving me alone again on a sofa bed in a second rate motel somewhere in Michigan.
The recent success of the relatively low budget movie DON’T BREATHE (2016) has a lot of people talking about how great it is to see a horror film be a big hit again. I am glad to see something with a Detroit setting be a big hit (one of my ex-students is listed in the credits). I am happy to see character actor Stephen Lang getting some notice for a very well done job. I am still a huge fan of his portrayal of General George Pickett (yes, of THAT famous charge) in the little seen but wonderful Civil War epic GETTYSBURG (1994). My hat is off to director Fede Alvarez for creating inventive and suspenseful set pieces that keep the drama moving (whether in a car or a closet or a basement) and keep the audience on the edge of their seats for the movie’s entire length. Well done! And kudos to actress Jane Levy whose sensitive portrayal of main character Rocky make us sympathize with someone who is basically a robber.
But, to my mind, the one thing DON’T BREATHE is not is a HORROR movie.
Are there suspenseful moments? Plenty of them. Are there a few scary moments meant to make the audience jump out of their seats? Yep, two or three. Are there some plot twists designed to make audience members (both male and female) cringe and cross their legs tightly? Totally.
But is it a horror film? To my mind, no.
In order for a film to be considered a horror film, it needs more than just scary moments. The scares must arise from supernatural elements: ghosts, mythical creatures (vampires, werewolves, monsters), witches, devils, demons, satanic cults, undead killers (Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy Krueger, et al), or undead/resurrected creatures (zombies, Frankenstein, dinosaurs). Essentially, people or creatures who have all had a brush with death or crossed over to “the other side” and come back to threaten us humans. They are difficult to kill because, in most cases, they are already dead. In order to defeat them, we ourselves have to go to the edge of death ourselves and come back.
The most successful horror films of the past fifteen years have all had these elements. The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies were built around a series of families that found themselves involved with demons and cults. The FINAL DESTINATION series followed a never-ending series of teenagers trying to stay one step ahead of Death after they had mistakenly survived an event where they were supposed to die. This week, the long awaited BLAIR WITCH sequel finds yet another group of investigators plunging into the infamous Burkett Woods searching for the last party of investigators who disappeared while searching for the long rumored witch of the same name. INSIDIOUS, SINSTER, THE CONJURING and their sequels. All are horror films based around characters encountering and having to defeat a supernatural element that threatens their lives.
Again, DON’T BREATHE doesn’t have any of these elements. It is the story of a trio of small time thieves who decide to break into the home of a blind military vet on a deserted Detroit street and steal the large cache of cash he is rumored to keep on site. They break in. They discover that the blind man (Stephen Lang) is not as helpless as they first believed. They encounter some surprising revelations about the man as they try to fight their way back out. But nothing they encounter is supernatural in any way. The scariest thing about the movie is that most of the surprises have been ripped from today’s headlines (as they used to say). It is scary because real people have actually done these things – or had them done to them. We are scared, repulsed, and reviled. But that doesn’t make this a horror film.
To my mind, what DON’T BREATHE is is an action film. Action films are generally defined as a movie that favors action scenes over characterization. The movie’s drama does not arise from the interaction between the characters but by the constant series of chases, gun battles, and cat and mouse situations the characters find themselves in. Action films are usually populated by criminals and cops seeking to solve or accomplish some kind of crime whether it is a robbery or a murder or a kidnapping. That is DON’T BREATHE to a tee. To my mind, it is an action film: a standard, suspenseful, action film with good performances and good direction and a fairly entertaining and resourceful script. Not a horror film at all.
Am I missing something? Is DON’T BREATHE a horror film or an action film? What do you think?
Back in 2013, Ben and I had a brief YouTube movie review show. Here we are reviewing one of Ben's favorite horror films, "V/H/S". My generational bias is showing!
Hello! Thank you for stopping by. Today is the first day of the latest relaunch of my blog. It started pretty well several years ago but a combination of daily life commitments and multiple workloads slowed it down to a trickle. Finding things to talk about wasn’t the trouble. Part of it was time, true. But part of it, the larger part, had to do with this notion of “branding”. I am sure you have heard the concept out there. We can’t just do anything anymore. We have to “brand” ourselves, especially on social media. What “brand” are we presenting to the world? And, no matter what we do, we cannot deviate from that brand.
It all reminded me of the opening credits of this old TV western called Branded that was on back in the 1960s when I was a kid :
And it all somehow left me feeling like Chuck Connors in that opening. Sorry, but this is just how my mind works. (smile)
You see, I had really started this blog and this website to publicize my writing and create a place to share what was on my mind. To look back at how things were and to look forward to how things change. The more I teach, the more I realize how little young people know about how things used to be back in the 1960s or 1970s or, gasp, the 1980s. I am sure I am not the first person to discover this!
For as long as I can remember I have loved:
Not necessarily in that order.
I love to travel. I love to meet new people and see new places. I love the heritage and the people of Indiana and West Virginia where I grew up. I love to learn. At the moment, I make my living by writing, by teaching, by freelance editing, and by script reading. Call me the perfect Gemini but I don’t have one interest nor do I want to.
And the more I read up on operating a blog, the more I kept running into this notion of “branding”. How the only way to have a successful blog was to focus on only one thing and never stray from it. Every time someone came to my blog they should know what they were going to get. So I decided to try and figure out what that one thing would be. And the more I thought about it, the more I could not come up with it. And the more I could not come up with it, the fewer ideas I would find to write about. And in the end, I just stopped writing all together.
Not that I stopped writing outside the blog. I have in the last three years cranked out a James Bond-esque thriller that could be the beginning of a book series and a World War II thriller. Those who have read pages from them give them very high marks and I do believe they are among the best things I have ever done.
But even in my writing, I started getting fixated on this whole notion of “branding” and I became afraid that if I came out with the wrong kind of book in the wrong genre then I would be sentenced to writing that kind of book for the rest of my life. I found that just as paralyzing as trying to figure out the one subject I should be writing about in my blog. “Branding” myself was actually paralyzing me. And I finally just reached a point this summer where I said, to hell with all of that. I am just going to write what I write.
So I am back now, The Middle-Aged Reviewer, ready to take on the blog again.
The last year has been tough for a number of reasons. One of the things that sucks about getting older is that we start losing our idols and our mentors because they are even older than us. Last year, we lost one of my favorite writers, E.L. Doctorow, one of the men who made me want to write in the first place. And this summer saw the passing of filmmaker Michael Cimino, the man who pretty much single-handedly made me want to get into the movies. (More on both of these subjects in the coming weeks).
As many of you in my inner circle know, I have been spending the summer writing on a novel set back in my high school days (or at least a highly fictionalized version of high school days). This one has LONG been in the works. Truth be told, I started working on this while I was still in high school. My high school days were some of the best times of my life and I recognized that while they were happening and so I started writing down events we were participating in and conversations we were having and squirreling them away in notebooks and files. I clipped out newspaper articles and compiled lists of the popular music and television shows of the time. All before I ever got that diploma. I knew they were special days and I was determined to hang onto them. To quote a scene from Michael Cimino’s misunderstood western Heaven’s Gate (1980) whose time has come:
John Hurt: “Do you remember the good, gone days?”
Kris Kristofferson: “Clearer and better, every day I get older.”
And that is so true.
I wrote the first draft of the book right after graduating high school. And it sucked. It was not ready to be written and I was not ready to write it. I put it away for over two decades. Took it back out in 2005 following the death of my mother and wrote a fairly solid draft. I was very happy with it but there was a glut of those kinds of books on the market back then so it went back on the shelf. Now it is back on my desk and now it is ready to be finished. Its time has come. It is called Mountain Cross.
As fall begins again (my favorite time of year) it is also fall again in my book and the beginning of my characters’ senior year of high school. And the more I look back, the more I discover the seeds of where we are today were sown way back then.
So I am just going to write what I want – both in books and on this blog. I am me. I am Richard. I will leave everyone else to figure out what “brand” I am.
Welcome back! I will be posting new stuff on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Please stop by. And if you have any suggestions of what “brand” I am, I am more than happy to hear them!
See you Wednesday.