Just one look

[This post is participating in Joe’s Movie Corner’s Endings Blog-a-thon.]

I was going to write about the ending to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, but Maul of America beat me to it.

So then I started thinking about other movies whose ending pays us off with a memorable, wordless facial expression like that one does (making this a sort of companion piece to my earlier post, “When words meet faces“). Warning: spoilers ahead.


The first movie like this that came to mind was Monsters, Inc. In that film, it is the job of monsters from the “monster world” to enter children’s bedrooms in the human world each night through magic doors and scare them into producing screams, which the monster world harvests for its energy. Secretly, monsters are terrified of children. One night, despite elaborate precautions, an adorable little toddler escapes into the monster world and is discovered by Sully, the champion scarer at Monsters, Inc. At first Sully is frightened of her but she soons endears herself to him. After a game of peek-a-boo, he decides to call her “Boo.” (Sully’s friend Mike is alarmed. “You’re not supposed to name it! Once you name it, you start getting attached to it!”) Amidst Boo’s pre-verbal babbling she calls him “Kitty.” He becomes protective of her and determines to return her to her bedroom, but machinations at Monsters, Inc. make this a challenge, and an adventure ensues. In the end, after helping to expose an evil plan, jail some criminals, and transform Monsters, Inc. from harvesting children’s screams to using their laughter, Sully finally bids Boo an emotional farewell and sends her back to her bedroom. Her door is put through a door-shredder.

Some time passes. Monsters, Inc. is doing better than ever now that it’s harvesting laughs instead of screams, but Sully misses Boo. One day, Sully’s friend Mike gives him a gift: Boo’s door, painstakingly reassembled from its shredded wooden fragments. Sully opens the door and tentatively peers through it. “Boo?” A more grown-up voice answers, “Kitty!” Sully’s face registers first surprise and then the most satisfying smile of delight ever animated.




While thinking about this post, my kids watched Spider-Man 2 on DVD and I was reminded of its ending, which is also a memorable, wordless facial expression.

Peter Parker has loved Mary Jane Watson all his life, but after the events of the first Spider-Man film he realized he must not place her in danger by letting anyone know he loves her; so he rejects her. In the next film, she reluctantly becomes engaged to another man. But the events of the film lead to her discovering Spider-Man’s true identity and the real reason for Peter’s rejection; he does in fact love her. She leaves her fiancé at the altar, runs to Peter’s side, and declares her love and her intention to face danger with him. “Isn’t it time someone saved your life?”

A moment later, they hear police sirens from the street below. MJ lets Peter go catch more bad guys. He leaps from his window as Spider-Man, exultantly swinging through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. He has reconciled his personal life with his responsibilities as a superhero, which has been the “through-line” of the film.

But interestingly, the movie doesn’t end there. It shifts into a more downbeat finale, cutting back to a rueful MJ as she stands in Peter’s window, watching him recede into the distance and fretting about the future.


A similar but much more classic “what have I gotten myself into” ending is in The Godfather. Michael Corleone has consolidated the power of the Corleone crime family, but his wife Kay has misgivings about the man he’s becoming. She confronts him in his office about his role in the disappearance of Carlo, his brother-in-law. “Don’t ask me about my business, Kay,” Michael warns, but Kay persists, angering him.

In the world of The Godfather, women don’t matter, except in how they can be used. So it takes no effort for Michael to pretend magnanimity and lie to his wife. “Alright. This one time. This one time I’ll let you ask about my affairs.” He gives a neat and tidy answer that sets her mind at ease. As she moves to the adjoining room to fix them both a drink, some of Michael’s lieutenants arrive in his office, one of them perfunctorily closing the door on Kay, whose face shows surprise and hurt. It’s man-talk and she can never be a part of it. And catching this glimpse of Michael about to do business, she wonders if she can believe what he just told her — or indeed anything at all.


But as classic as The Godfather is, the granddaddy of rueful ambivalence is the ending of The Graduate. Benjamin Braddock, having let grownups heave him from one situation to another his whole life, has finally seized control of things himself. Overcoming many obstacles he hurries to the chapel where Elaine Robinson is about to marry another man. “Elaine! Elaine!” he shouts to her through a glass wall.

After a melee he succeeds in extracting her from the ceremony, eluding an angry mob of family and wedding guests, and herding Elaine onto a city bus, where their initial excitement at being reunited and avoiding an unwanted marriage turns to disquiet: Elaine remembering what a cad she found Benjamin to be only a short time ago; Benjamin remembering that it was not his own idea to call on Elaine in the first place, but that of another grownup. Will he ever be his own man?


Greatest hits: Peep! Peep!

[This post is participating in Only the Cinema’s Short Film Week blog-a-thon.]

My kids have outgrown it by now, but for a few years there our household was swimming in Thomas the Tank Engine videos and toys, and I could tell you the name, color, function, and personality of every engine on picturesque Sodor, and so could my wife and kids. I was amazed by that — and am now equally amazed at how quickly (and mercifully!) it has all faded from memory.

I wrote the following at the peak of our Thomasmania and dedicate it to all parents of Thomas-obsessed toddlers who think this phase will never end. It will.


It was a beautiful day on the island of Sodor. [Engine X] was very excited — today was the day of [an annual celebration or completion of a major construction milestone]. As [Engine X] chattered about it with the other engines in the shed, Sir Topham Hatt came to see him.

[Engine X],” he said, “today I have an important job for you. You must ferry the [children, celebrants, performers, or party goods] to the [celebration].”

“Oh my,” said [Engine Y] to [Engine X]. “That means you’ll have to [traverse a notoriously tricky section of track]. Be sure to [travel at an appropriate speed].”

“I’m sure I always do,” sniffed Gordon.

On his way to [yet another among tiny Sodor’s impossibly many stations], [Engine X] grew more and more excited and started to sing a happy song. “Oh, I’m going to pick up the [children, celebrants, performers, or party goods],” he sang as he chuffed along. He was having so much fun that he forgot all about [traveling at an appropriate speed]. Closer and closer loomed the [notoriously tricky section of track] until, all of a sudden–!

(Here [Engine X] makes an off-track excursion and causes property damage.)

Fortunately, no one was hurt. A short time later, Sir Topham Hatt arrived. He was very cross. “[Engine X], you were not paying attention. You have caused confusion and delay. I have asked [Engine Y] to take your place. You must go back to the shed for repairs.”

“I’m sorry,” said [Engine X]. He felt terrible. Not even jolly Harvey could cheer him up as he helped pull [Engine X] back onto the tracks. Now [Engine X] would not get to carry the [children, celebrants, performers, or party goods], and he wouldn’t even be able to attend the [celebration]!

On his way back to the shed, [Engine X] passed [Engine Y]. “Hi, [Engine X]!” called [Engine Y] cheerfully. “Hello,” replied [Engine X] glumly. As they passed, [Engine X] noticed [a condition with negative consequences for safety]. “I must alert [Engine Y, Sir Topham Hatt, or the switchman]!” thought [Engine X]. So he raced to [the celebration] and [averted a disaster].

Everyone cheered for [Engine X]! Sir Topham Hatt said, “You are a really useful engine.”

And he was.

The beginning of wisdom

[This post is participating in Strange Culture’s Film + Faith Blog-a-thon. Warning: spoilers follow for the book and film Contact. Update 16 Dec: this post is also participating in Joel Schlosberg’s second annual Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon.]

I read Carl Sagan‘s novel, Contact, soon after it was published in the late 1980’s, and enjoyed it greatly. It’s the story of a radio astronomer, Ellie Arroway, who is the first person on Earth to detect, verify, and begin deciphering a genuine extraterrestrial message.

A considerable part of the story is devoted to the societal implications of Arroway’s discovery, especially among various religious communities. As it’s depicted in the book, Ellie must suffer various crackpots, blowhards, and garden-variety religious leaders (well-meaning but deluded) spouting their superstitious blather in her quest to secure the resources needed to finish decoding the alien transmission and build the Great Machine.

For the transmission includes, among other things, construction plans for a tremendous and tremendously complicated machine. At its center is a capsule that seats five intrepid adventurers. No one knows what will happen when the machine is switched on. Will the capsule launch into space? Travel through time? Pop into a different dimension? Or is it a weapon that will obliterate the Earth?

The trials involved in achieving the goal of building and activating the Machine are portrayed very much as the power of pure reason overcoming the fetters of fear and ignorance. In the end, Ellie and her fellow travelers are propelled across vast distances and have a surprising encounter with a superior but benevolent race. When they return days later, they discover that no time has elapsed on Earth, leaving a diehard core of doubters free to insist that nothing at all happened, even though there is compelling evidence to support the stories told by Ellie and the others. Science is the clear winner, religion the loser, and it’s pure wish fulfillment: what atheist hasn’t dreamed of winning one of those unwinnable arguments about faith and science against a true believer?

In Robert Zemeckis’ film version of Contact, things are subtly different. Ellie is as much an empiricist as in the book, but man-of-God Palmer Joss is much less easy to dismiss out of hand. His interplay with Ellie on the subject of faith leaves her uncharacteristically at a loss, unable to turn him aside by articulating the bedrock principles of skeptical inquiry.

When the time comes to try the Machine, crucially there is room in it for only one person, so that when Ellie returns from her amazing journey there is no one to corroborate her account. There is also a total absence of physical evidence to support her story. Ellie ends up passionately, desperately trying to persuade people to believe what she is certain is true but cannot prove. Palmer Joss sympathetically points out that this is precisely the situation in which persons of faith find themselves.

It’s a marvelous storytelling contrivance, and the dialogue and performances drive the point home economically and convincingly. But I left the theater conflicted. On the one hand, the film had excellent performances and astonishing visuals, it was exhilarating to see an intelligent, uncliched portrayal of science and scientists in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and it was in many respects faithful to the novel. Where changes were made, by and large they were to add some emotional depth that had been missing from Sagan’s plot- and technology-heavy writing. On the other hand, the rebalancing of science and religion changed what the story was fundamentally about! It offended me that Carl Sagan, recently deceased after a lifetime of science advocacy (today would have been his 73rd birthday, by the way), should have his fantasy about the triumph of humanism and reason watered down for a mass audience!

Over time, though, the film version grew on me and I recognized it as something greater than the source novel: an adventure in which reason triumphs and an exploration of the tangled interrelationship between belief and skepticism. Where I had been hoping to see religious moviegoers get schooled in the virtues of rational thought, instead I had received a lesson about the nuances and complexities of the human experience. The science-beats-religion version of the story had become, to me, overly simplistic. (Sorry, Carl.)

After all, even Mr. Spock admits, near the end of a long career working with humans, that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

CHUD!

[This post is participating in M.A. Peel’s Comedy Blog-a-thon.]

It may be immodest of me to identify, as my “purest comedic moment,” one that I helped to create. But when I try to think of one that I merely experienced, there are a thousand different ones vying for the top spot. On the other hand, of my own comedy there was a single moment that stands above the rest.

As I mentioned a few months ago, some friends and I won our ninth grade talent show with a comic act called “The Epiphany County Choir.” Wearing plaid flannel shirts, bad haircuts, and dumbfounded expressions, we pretended to be country bumpkins from Nebraska newly arrived in the Big Apple. We sang “When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska” to much laughter and applause.

A short time later, through some connections of Chuck’s as I recall, we got a gig performing our Epiphany County Choir act in front of a studio audience on a local cable-access show. We arrived at the studio early on a Saturday morning excited and nervous, chatted a bit with the station manager, and then were shown onto the stage in front of our audience: a class of 2nd-graders from Harlem.

The show must go on. We gamely performed “Hog Calling Time” in character, but to say our humor was lost on them is giving too much credit to the connotative powers of the word “lost.” We left the stage and huddled in the waiting room with the station manager and the schoolteacher, who registered her displeasure at the choice of entertainment for her charges. She wanted to know if we had anything more age-appropriate to perform for her kids. Chuck, apparently interpreting this to mean “race-appropriate,” indelicately suggested, “We do know the theme song from The Jeffersons.”

Because the world is funny, today Chuck is a professional diplomat.

Embarrassing at the time, that episode is funny in hindsight, and Chuck has gotten his share of ribbing for his gaffe, but that wasn’t my purest comedic moment. Read on.

We reprised our Epiphany County Choir act the following year to reasonable acclaim, with about twenty minutes of new material. The year after that we decided to stage our own hour-long show: “The Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special” (in April).

Feeling we hadn’t sufficiently promoted the show in advance, we stood outside the entrance to our school on show day, lined up in our flannel shirts and in character, repeating the following in unison over and over and over for about forty-five minutes as students arrived for classes: “Come to the Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special, 11:30 in the auditorium for free! Come to the Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special, 11:30 in the auditorium for free! Come to the Epiphany County Choir Home-For-Christmas Television Special, 11:30 in the auditorium for free!” You try it, see how long you can keep it up.

The show included a performance of “Silver Bells” on a set of handbells; an Andy-Kaufman-style pantomime to a recording of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music; an a capella rendition of the theme music from The Odd Couple; an audience “sing-along” consisting of nothing but hand-clapping; and more. We were a hit; the crowd loved us.

But the coup de grace was the “Chud game.” Steve set the stage with a few minutes of (intentionally) bad stand-up about Chud, the neighboring county to Epiphany. “They call themselves Chuddites over there,” he told the audience with barely suppressed mirth, “but we just call ’em Chuds!” (Whereupon we in the Choir crack up.) There followed several supposedly disparaging Chud jokes — e.g., “How many Chuds does it take to screw in a light bulb? Fifteen!” — and then our helpers distributed Chud cards to the audience members.

The night before, we had drawn up hundreds of Chud cards by hand. These were Bingo cards, but with four columns apiece, labeled C, H, U, and D. Each card was different, just like real Bingo cards, but they were all rigged to win simultaneously when we called the four prearranged “Chud numbers.” I should mention that this was more than a year before “C.H.U.D.” stood for Cannibalistic, Humanoid Underground Dwellers.

After the Chud cards were distributed, Steve announced that the winner would receive a prize. The prize was beef jerky. A few days earlier, Andrew and I had gone to a snack-food wholesaler to buy enough beef jerky for the whole audience.

I cranked the handle of a genuine Bingo cage we had secured from somewhere, and I handed the chosen numbers to Steve one at a time. Although he made a big show of trying to read the numbers off the balls, of course he didn’t actually; instead he announced the numbers we had arranged the night before. “C-8!” “U-32!” “D-49!” By the third number it was obvious to the audience what we were up to and they began laughing and clamoring. Steve threw an unrehearsed curveball, announcing a number we hadn’t planned, and I was momentarily furious with him, worried that someone might prematurely win the game — but no, he succeeded in building a little suspense.

When he finally announced, “H-18!” the entire audience jumped to its feet and roared, “CHUD!” in unison. Somewhere there is video footage of me, Steve, and the others in the Choir with perfectly astonished looks on our faces as the crowd dissolved into screaming laughter. (We never could have pulled it off without cracking up ourselves if we hadn’t stayed awake the entire night before, preparing the show and rehearsing, making ourselves weary and slightly sick from too much beef jerky.) In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined causing such merriment or producing such a response. It was my purest comedic moment.

When words meet faces

[This post is participating in The House Next Door’s Close-Up Blog-a-thon.]

For my money, of the many fine uses of closeups in cinema, the most affecting are the ones that focus the viewer’s attention on one person’s wordless reaction to another person’s speech. In this post I’ll describe three such scenes. (Spoilers ahead, for three old movies.)


Near the end of Mary Poppins, George Banks gets a phone call at home. Earlier that day, he’d brought his children with him to see where he works: a big bank in London, where he is a junior partner. He tells them, “A bank is a quiet and decorous place so we must be on our best behavior.”

Taking his children to the bank was not his idea. George Banks is one whose notion of fatherhood involves a lot of what today we’d call outsourcing — to his wife, to his nanny, to the rest of his domestic staff, even to the local constable when necessary. In his introductory scene he sings about his ideal day: “It’s six-oh-three and the heirs to my dominion are scrubbed and tubbed and adequately fed. And so I’ll pat them on the head and send them off to bed. Ah, lordly is the life I lead!”

No, taking little Jane and Michael to the bank was the result of some psychological jujitsu by Mary Poppins, who seemed somehow to know precisely the trouble that would ensue — and how it would ultimately heal the Banks household.

Jane and Michael’s introduction to Mr. Dawes, the bank’s senior partner, goes disastrously. Michael refuses to let Mr. Dawes see the twopence he’s brought, which farcically precipitates a run on the bank. “Stop all payments! Stop all payments!” shouts a harried bank officer. Clerks scoop up cash and coins and hightail it to the vault. Word spreads fast and a mob throngs in from the street outside.

Later that night comes the phone call. It’s the bank. George is to report to a late-night meeting where it is understood he will be summarily discharged. He hangs up and collapses into a chair. “A man has dreams of walking with giants,” he sings morosely, “To carve his niche in the edifice of time. Before the mortar of his zeal has a chance to congeal, the cup is dashed from his lips, the flame is snuffed a-borning, he’s brought to wrack and ruin in his prime.”

Fortunately, Bert the chimney-sweep is there, cleaning up from some mayhem earlier that evening. As he sings the following ironically to George Banks, the camera lingers on Banks’ face:

You’re a man of high position, esteemed by your peers. And when your little tykes are cryin’ you haven’t time to dry their tears and see them grateful little faces smilin’ up at you because their dad, he always knows just what to do.

You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone though childhood slips like sand through a sieve. And all too soon they’ve up grown and then they’ve flown and it’s too late for you to give just that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down…

I watched this recently with my three-and-a-half-year-old son Archer, who is extremely chatty when watching movies. He continually asks for commentary on the action in the film, even when it’s extremely obvious and he understands it perfectly well. (“Why did Robin climb down that ladder?” “To hand Batman the can of Shark Repellent Bat-Spray.” “Why?” “To make the shark stop biting Batman’s leg.” “Why?” “Because would you like a shark biting your leg?” “No.” “That’s why.”) We encourage this, because it turns what would be a very passive, brainless activity into an interactive, enriching one.

On this occasion, as realization crept over the sad face of George Banks, Archer asked me, “What is happening?” With a lump in my throat I answered, “He’s realizing for the first time how much he loves his children, and that he hasn’t been a very good daddy.” (Yes, I get a lump in my throat watching Mary Poppins. So sue me.)

To cap it all off, Banks’ children shuffle contritely into the room, offer a sweetly sincere apology, and place in his hands the troublesome twopence. Wonder, sorrow, admiration — it’s as if he’s seeing his children for the first time, and it’s all right there on his face. And could that be a glimmer of a new lightness in his heart?

Some emotional moments are too profound for words. Archer seemed to sense this too and remained uncharacteristically silent for the next several minutes as George Banks grappled with a rearrangement of his worldview. For all the music and color and whimsy in this film, this one little moment was its dramatic climax. It was the perfect use of a reaction closeup.


I am no Bette Davis fan. But she delivers an amazing performance in Frank Capra’s final film, Pocketful of Miracles, and does much of it with her amazing, aging face.

In the film, she’s Apple Annie, a gin-swilling panhandler on Depression-era Broadway. She’s a tough old broad but she has a secret soft spot: she adores her daughter Louise, who has lived abroad all her life and knows nothing of her mother’s true nature. Annie has maintained a deception in her lifelong correspondence with Louise, claiming to belong to New York’s high society. Now Louise, grown into a beautiful young woman, writes that she is engaged to marry a Spanish nobleman — and they are coming to New York to receive her blessing!

Annie wanders the city in a daze. What can she do? She longs to meet her daughter and hold her in her arms, but she is ashamed of herself, afraid of what Louise will think, and fearful of causing Louise’s fiancé to break the engagement.

Fortunately, an important local gangster (with a heart of gold), Dave the Dude, has his own soft spot — for Annie. He believes that her apples bring him luck, and he never does business without first buying one from her. Now he’s due at his most important meeting yet, with a major mob boss from Chicago. But Annie is nowhere to be found.

Annie’s fellow panhandlers (who have known about Louise all along and have learned about Annie’s dilemma) find Dave and bring him to Annie’s pathetic little tenement, where she is out of her mind with worry, and drunk to boot. They tell Dave about Annie’s daughter and plead with him to help her. Dave interrogates Annie skeptically, all impatience. He just wants to buy an apple and get to his big meeting. He doesn’t have time for this. Annie just overdid it on the gin again, that’s all.

As Dave the Dude rails insensitively against the story the panhandlers tell him and what they’re asking him to do, the camera is tight on Annie’s miserable, besotted face. The shame, fear, and desperation in that face build to a piteous crescendo, more vivid than any mere dialogue could have made it. She doesn’t want Dave to see her like this, she doesn’t want him to know her secret pain, and his brusque manner isn’t making anything easier. When he finally spots a photo of Louise and demands, “Is this your kid?” Annie denies it. An instant later her heart breaks as he tosses the picture frame aside — and the truth is out.


The cops are closing in on Ned Racine, and he knows it. Worse: the cops are his friends. From them he learns that a crucial piece of evidence in a murder case is the victim’s missing eyeglasses. If they can be found, it should clinch the case — and put Ned in jail, because he’s guilty of the crime.

In Lawrence Kasdan’s noir homage Body Heat, a masterpiece in its own right, Ned has conspired with his mistress, Matty Walker, to kill her rich and distinctly unlikeable husband. Ned, a crummy defense attorney, learns from one of his recidivist clients, Teddy, how to create an incendiary device with a timer. With it, Ned obliterates much of the evidence (including the dead body).

Now his client warns him that a tall, beautiful brunette came around asking him how to rig such a device to a door. Ned is stunned. Could that have been Matty? Who else would have known to ask Teddy about such a thing? Why would she need another bomb? Why wouldn’t she tell Ned?

Then Ned gets a call from Matty, who’s out of town. I know where the glasses are, she tells him. The housekeeper was blackmailing me with them. I paid her off. She put them in a drawer in my boathouse. You should go and get them right away.

As Ned listens to Matty’s lies, the camera closes slowly on his face. His cigarette burns forgotten almost down to his fingers. He grunts his monosyllabic responses, but his face says everything that really matters. She wants me dead. She wants all the money for herself. She wants no witnesses. I’ve been a fool.

Don’t you know that slapstick is DEAD?!

[This post is participating in the Slapstick Blog-a-thon.]

“Don’t you know that slapstick is DEAD?!” hollers movie-studio honcho Sid Caesar to washed-up director Mel Brooks near the beginning of Silent Movie (as Brooks is pitching the idea of a silent movie to Caesar). He promptly topples backward into his office chair, which flips him onto his back and inexplicably rockets him across the room, colliding with the wall.

At ages four and two, my kids were already movie buffs, both able to devote their attention to a full-length movie and speak intelligently about the stories and the characters. Jonah, age four, exhibited enormous sensitivity, mirroring the emotions of the characters on the screen — joy, sorrow, fear, excitement. Archer, age two, hadn’t reached that milestone. He watched and enjoyed movies without becoming emotionally involved.

One day I put on Silent Movie and read the title cards aloud for them (making a few judicious edits along the way). I could tell the boys were enjoying it, but Archer was impassive as ever…

…until the elevator scene. Mel Brooks and Dom Deluise board an elevator at the hospital to visit Sid Caesar, but their friend Marty Feldman — distracted by a toy airplane — misses it. There are six elevators, so he waits for the next one. When it opens, he is prevented from entering by an improbable crush of exiting passengers. When the next elevator comes, the doors close almost immediately and he collides with them. The same happens with the next elevator, and the next. Soon he is ricocheting between the elevator doors like a pinball.

Archer started laughing and laughing. Jonah had been only mildly amused but Archer’s infectious giggle got him going, and then me too. Helpless with mirth, we missed much of the next minute or two of the movie.

Archer’s three and a half now and plenty else has made him laugh or worry or cheer in the movies he’s watched. But Silent Movie was the first one to get a genuine reaction out of him. For him, slapstick definitely wasn’t dead.

August 5th, 1977

[This post is participating in the Star Wars 30th Anniversary blog-a-thon.]

May 25th, 1977, was not an especially significant day for me. I was aware that some science fictiony thing called Star Wars had just opened, and I even saw a brief clip in the film-review segment of that evening’s news, but somehow, despite being a nerdy ten year old, the idea of seeing Star Wars held no appeal for me.

The decades of Star Wars mania that were soon to follow did such a thorough job of entombing my pre-Star Wars mentality that I can’t even construct a plausible theory to explain my disinterest, let alone remember the actual reason. A big-screen space adventure should have hit me right where I lived, and later, of course, it did, in a very big way. Could there really have been an earlier version of me that was immune to the prospect? In any event, the opening day of Star Wars came and went almost completely unremarked.

For the next many days I was subjected to my friend David‘s ravings about the film. He’d seen it on opening weekend with his dad. I regarded his lavish praise with skepticism. I knew David was also heavy into “hard SF,” to which I, a confirmed Trekkie, had not yet graduated. He had never been able to interest me in his sci-fi novelettes or his hex-grid sci-fi boardgames, which all seemed the same to me, lots of galactic-conquest-this and enslaving-races-that.


Well-thumbed

Before long, though, I could not escape the Star Wars phenomenon and decided to check out… the novel. I picked it up at the bookstore and was immediately hooked! I must have read it twice in one week and was determined to see the movie immediately. But it was too late: the summer had come and it was time to go to Monticello!

When we were in “the country” during the summer, my dad stayed in the city to work and came up to be with us on the weekends. While he was away, we were without a car. The bungalow colony where we stayed had everything we needed, so we never missed it — except that without a car, we couldn’t get to the movie theater at the Jamesway mall, where Star Wars was playing.

Each weekend that summer I pleaded with my parents to take us to see the movie, but there were always other things to do and never enough time. Meanwhile I read and re-read and re-read the book, and my parents tried to placate me with related Star Wars items like the LP of the music. Being surrounded all summer by a day camp full of kids abuzz about Star Wars, they were small comfort.

Finally, on the first Friday in August, my dad arrived from the city a little earlier than usual and announced, “Let’s go see Star Wars!” The drive from Sims Bungalow Colony to the mall could not have been more than five miles, but it seemed to take forever. Waiting for the movie to begin I fairly vibrated in my seat, possibly hyperventilating. Two hours later my parents reported, with equal measures of amusement and alarm, that they had not seen me blink once since the movie began.

I’d lost my Star Wars cherry and life was never the same. As soon as we were back in Forest Hills after the summer, I made my way to the Continental theater on Austin Street to see it again. And then again a week or two later.

By fall it was still playing, but I began to worry about the day it would disappear from the theaters. I hatched a scheme to tape-record the audio of the movie. I fit my Radio Shack cassette tape recorder inside a shoulder bag. I got fresh batteries. I got blank cassettes and took off the cellophane in advance — I didn’t want it crinkling when the time came. I put on my watch, said “Seeya tonight” to my folks, and sat through three consecutive shows of Star Wars at the Continental.

During the first show I used my watch to locate silences in the film during which I could flip or change my tape. During the second show I recorded the audio, deftly ejecting, flipping, and changing cassettes (all surreptitiously inside my shoulder bag, as I had practiced at home) at the times I’d marked down. And the third show was for — what else? — just being able to sit back and enjoy the movie.

A week later I did the exact same thing in order to have two recordings. The crappier one would serve as a backup. Of course they were both crappy, but they were good enough to listen to again and again, the way most other kids listened to their favorite records. In no time I had memorized every word, every note of music, and every sound effect. Where other kids would go around singing their favorite songs, I would recite Star Wars.

I must have driven my family and friends to distraction, but they were all very tolerant, even supportive — surprisingly so, in retrospect. I was not quite as bad as the character in Diner who compulsively quotes The Sweet Smell of Success to anyone and everyone rather than actually talk to them. But I was close. Fortunately I was still a few years away from trying to get laid.

Thirty years later I still remember the movie with near-perfect fidelity. When I read about Edward Copeland’s Star Wars blog-a-thon to commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary, I asked myself, “What can I contribute that’s more than just another reminiscence of the first time I saw Star Wars? What’s left to say that I haven’t already said?”

Then I saw Charles Ross’s One Man Star Wars show and thought, “I can do better!” That gave me my answer; and here it is. I whipped it together in a few hours with Audacity, Transcode, and a very cheap microphone. I apologize for the terrible “tape hiss” and the strange audio artifacts. I’m no sound engineer — and as this makes clear, I’m no voice actor either. I have a new appreciation for what Charles Ross does on stage — though I do think I nailed Mark Hamill’s reading of, “Are you kidding? At the rate they’re gaining?” And all of Chewbacca’s lines.

Update: I just found this online: the General Cinema feature-presentation “snipe,” which preceded my first viewing of Star Wars at the Monticello Twin Cinema. As far as I know, I only saw this “snipe” that one time, but its jazzy tune was seared into my memory and I’ve been humming it from time to time ever since. God, I love the Internet.

Update 2: The YouTube copy of the General Cinema snipe is gone but can still be found here.

What Carl Sagan means to me

Yesterday I blogged about my 11th-grade math teacher, Mr. Arrigo, one of my greatest teachers ever. But any list of my greatest teachers must include Carl Sagan, even though he wasn’t “my” teacher any more than he was everyone else’s in the whole world.

Sagan’s famous Tonight Show appearances happened right around the time I was old enough to stay up and see them. Early on I remember being annoyed by his criticisms of Star Wars (to wit: that spaceships don’t make whooshing noises in space, that Chewbacca deserved a medal at the end too, etc). But then my mom, who I think had a bit of a crush on him, urged me to read Broca’s Brain, and I was hooked on his brand of science education.

Then came Cosmos, which was eagerly anticipated in our household. We counted down to its premiere for weeks. When it finally aired, the cheesy new-age music and Sagan’s, er, limited acting abilities — the camera lingered forever on what was supposed to be his awestruck face as he sailed through the universe in his kinda lame “ship of the imagination” — left us at first unenthused. But then came his story of Eratosthenes and I got another one of those emotional learning moments that I wrote about yesterday. The following is from Cosmos, the companion book to the PBS series:

[Eratosthenes] was the director of the great library of Alexandria, where one day he read in a papyrus book that in the southern frontier outpost of Syene, near the first cataract of the Nile, at noon on June 21 vertical sticks cast no shadows. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, as the hours crept toward midday, the shadows of temple columns grew shorter. At noon, they were gone. A reflection of the Sun could be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well. The Sun was directly overhead. […]

Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow and a stick in Alexandria, far to the north, could cast a pronounced shadow. […]

The only possible answer, he saw, was that the surface of the Earth is curved. Not only that: the greater the curvature, the greater the difference in shadow lengths. […] For the observed difference in the shadow lengths, the distance between Alexandria and Syene had to be about seven degrees along the circumference of the Earth [which] is something like one-fiftieth of three hundred and sixty degrees, the full circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria and Syene was approximately 800 kilometers, because he hired a man to pace it out. Eight hundred kilometers times 50 is 40,000 kilometers: so that must be the circumference of the Earth.

This is the right answer. Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet, and brains, plus a taste for experiment. With them he deduced the circumference of the Earth with an error of only a few percent […] He was the first person accurately to measure the size of a planet.

In the TV show, when Sagan said matter-of-factly, “This is the right answer,” I got a lump in my throat. At once I was propelled farther down the paths of learning, teaching, science, and, of course, Carl Sagan fanhood.

It is more than just a shame that Sagan died before his time of a rare disease, ten years ago today. (This blog post is participating in a Carl Sagan “blog-a-thon” to commemorate the occasion.) There is no doubt that if he were alive today, he would never have permitted science to be debased by politics to the extent that it has in recent years. Sagan knew that we ignore science at our peril and excelled at conveying that message. He saved the world once before, by popularizing the nuclear winter theory of the aftermath of even small nuclear wars, assuring those insane enough to consider such wars that they could never avoid spelling their own doom as well as their enemy’s. Who will take up his mantle and bring the Promethean fire of science back to light a world darkened by his absence?