We Who Love Movies

New York, 1989

You thought you loved movies because you made your mom take you to see M*A*S*H at a drive-in when you were 12, and made your dad take you see Jaws seven times, four times for the fun, and three to study how they did it, and you’d rather spend the afternoon in a dark overly-air conditioned theatre mining The Boatniks for good bits (there were none) instead of riding your bike through suburban vacant lots and launching Estes model rockets in chaparral fields, and when you got a job as an usher you watched Dustin Hoffman’s monologue about buying a Burberry coat in Kramer vs. Kramer over and over again, fascinated by the framing of the shot and his strenuous effort to appear unmannered, and the first thing you bought from the job was a VCR to watch more movies, which you ran the moment you came home: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf while lifting weights, Blade Runner through the barbecue, Lawrence of Arabia muted while you called girls on the phone. Yes, you loved movies, more than anyone you knew. But then you went to film school.

There was L____, whose idea of cocktail chitchat was high-concept pitches of sexual revenge horror movies, and who actually got angry when you said you hadn’t seen Midnight Cowboy, as if you’d consciously avoided it, then lent you bootlegs of The Karen Carpenter Story and Jane Campion’s Peel, un-jerked the clerks at Kim’s video, and insisted you watch Salo even though he’d described the entire movie to you during a game of tennis, and accompanied you to the four-hour version of 1900 even though he’d seen it, or come to think of it, because he’d seen it. And you think, well, surely there can be no one who loves movies more than that.

But then you meet Alexy, the Cinema Studies exchange student from VGIK whose undergraduate thesis was on the films of Robert Altman, though he had never seen any of Altman’s films — only read the scripts, which was all the Russian government allowed, so when he came to NYU he did nothing but watch movies in free screenings at school (darkened rooms of thin, black-clad, bespectacled students taking notes of the Beatles’ black-and-white antics, as if decrypting a secret code Richard Lester had embedded in Liverpudlian slapstick), and when he’d seen all the screenings and the movies in theatres, he went to the Bobst Library to watch whatever was in the public domain: Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Howard Hawks and Huston, and on Sundays he would not answer the phone in his Third Avenue dorm room because that’s when Fox TV played movies back-to-back all day, he absorbing whatever they had to offer, later imploring explanations of cultural references from Oh Heavenly Dog and Mister Mom and Nine to Five (“Why so much they hate boss?”).

He drank movies like a man too long in the desert who had only had water described to him, and there was just one day that we were able to convince him not to watch movies but to go with us to an amusement park in New Jersey.

He had expected a small sideshow circus like what he’d seen in Moscow: little trained dogs and strong men and knife throwers, but we took him to a corporate-run monstrosity with hydraulically-driven roller coasters that went upside down and took pictures of you screaming as it did. He was scared on the first rides, but he soon understood that the danger was illusory, and got more excited and animated until he was red-faced and beaming, giddy from the tension and release.

As we were leaving we passed the games that invited you to pitch quarters onto plates to win a prize, the biggest being a giant stuffed bear. Alexy wanted to try and I wondered what is it with Russians and bears, then he insisted, so I pulled him close and explained that the plates were deceptively small, and waxed, and we’d lose quarter after quarter that poor grad students need for bodega coffees (regular means black, “It’s our pleasure to serve you”) and Washington Square Park hotdog lunches and cigarettes and Rolling Rocks at The Blue and the Gold (the Ukrainian national anthem on the jukebox, playable for free) and 3 a.m. challah French toast at Kiev, and us all that time talking about movies we loved and arguing about the ones we hated, lording over the others the mention of movies no one else had seen, and talk of the ones we thought we might be able to make, what we hoped to make, and when it was late enough and we were drunk enough and we felt safe enough, the ones we really wanted to make.

We needed our money, I said to Alexy; it was ammunition for script covers and brass brads and copy machines, film stock and equipment rental and pizza for the volunteer crew, but Alexy would not take no, so I gave him one coin (“You see this? This Is This.”) and he tossed it, the natural light almost gone, our final take on the last roll of short end: and it landing and spinning to a freeze-frame stop in the center of the highest dish.

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