Roving thoughts and provocations

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When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night

A number of years ago I bought Halliwell’s Film Guide to thousands of movies going back to the silent film era, which provides not just the names of actors, writers, directors, producers, but also plot summaries and quotes from contemporary reviews. I planned to use the Guide to inform myself about old movies shown on TV and available in video stores, and I did that from time to time. Occasionally, however, when I found it lying around, I’d open it at random and start reading in it, usually attracted by the name of the film, something irresistible like Calling Doctor Death, Isle of Forgotten Sins, Naked Alibi, or Prudence and the Pill, about a girl who “borrows her mother’s contraceptives pills and replaces them with aspirin, causing no end of complication.” One day it dawned on me that out of the twelve to fifteen movies listed on every page of the Guide, there was at least one I had seen and more often several.

Even when the title meant nothing to me at first, the synopsis of the plot and the name of some actor would stir ancient memories, and I would see myself hunched over in a dark movie theater, playing hooky from school or dying from boredom when I was older, watching a British flick called Shadow of the Cat. This came to me as a shock. If I saw all of these movies, I asked myself, how did I ever find the time to sleep, eat, read books, teach students, raise a family and write hundreds of poems? Like millions of others who grew up in 1940s, I had spent a good part of my life seeing hundreds and hundreds of movies, everything from genuine masterpieces of the cinema to worthless trash.

It was the fault of my parents. They both loved movies. One of my earliest memories in World War II Belgrade, where I grew up, was going to see a Buster Keaton film. Neither Nazi nor Russian tanks could stop my mother from going to the movies and taking me along, although I cannot imagine that there were regular showings with the Allies dropping bombs nearly on our heads and the German curfew in force after ten at night. My only complaint was that she took me mostly to see grownup pictures in which people talked forever, while I dozed on and off, waking abruptly in the middle of the film to some grainy black and white image—say, a man and a woman traveling in a car on an empty highway, the sea pounding the rocks under a sky full of racing clouds, or more interestingly, a dog chasing a rooster. Even today my head is filled with such visual fragments; whether ordinary or unusual, they are made permanently mysterious by being detached from their plot and thus existing outside of time. In the days before television, the movies had little competition for our dream life.

It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them. Thanks to the movies, we got acquainted with New York, Paris, London and scores of other cities and countries for the first time. We fought in hundreds of wars, clashed swords with Roman legions and Medieval knights, boxed in a ring, faced off with knives in dark alleys, escaped from orphanages, prisons, and chain gangs, met ghosts and visitors from outer space, had ourselves hung by the neck, executed by firing squads, pardoned at the last minute from the guillotine and the electric chair. We danced with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, consorted in after hours gambling joints with gangsters and their molls, smoked opium in Hong Kong, worked as spies, private detectives, and cowboys, ran from Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler, hunted for tigers and buffalos, explored jungles, deserts, and arctic wasteland. All this was between running errands for our mothers and grandmothers, doing our homework, and playing and fighting in the street with other kids from our neighborhood.

Back in the 1990s, I got an interesting call from a newspaper editor in Europe. He asked me if I could remember the first movie I saw as child that I liked, not because of the plot, but because of something else in it, something I had no words for at the time. Without ever thinking about it before, I knew what he had in mind. I recalled instantly trying to convey to a couple of my pals back in Belgrade what I liked about Victorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and becoming incoherent, as far as they were concerned. Like me, they were strictly fans of Westerns and gangster movies, but these were in short supply in the postwar Communist years, when we had a choice between upbeat Soviet films about fighting the Nazis and building socialism, or bleak Italian and French neo-realist films that were supposed to teach us a lesson by showing us the miserable lives of the working classes in the capitalist world.

The day I saw Bicycle Thieves I had become an aesthete without realizing it, more concerned with how a particular film was made, than with whatever twists its plot had. All of a sudden, the way the camera moved, a scene was cut and a certain image was framed, were all-important to me. I’d lie in bed at night replaying some scene from a movie again and again, making it more suspenseful, erotic and, of course poetic, and taking immense pleasure in that activity. No wonder my friends began to think of me as being a little weird when it comes to movies. I was twelve years old, clueless about most things in life, but already carrying in my head my very own exclusive and constantly expanding film library, not yet a match for Halliwell’s, but large enough to occupy me and enrich my inner life when I lay awake at night.

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