Editor’s Note: I turn 40 on June 6, 2012. As a little challenge to myself, I’m spending one calendar year writing 40 posts that say something about my life. Today, it’s all about one of my life’s true loves – the movies. This post was originally published a few years ago but I’ve gone back and freshened it up for the occasion.
It’s safe to say that my Blog serves two very important purposes. For starters, it’s become the digital scrapbook of my life – capturing all of my latest comings and going while also providing a canvas upon which I can paint from memory. Secondly, I’ve used it to create conversation with the folks I love chatting with most. I’ve got a small group of people who frequent this place – most friends and family but a few strangers who stopped in for a spell and decided to keep coming back around. The best part of getting together with familiar faces is the wide and meandering conversations that spark. And over the years, I’ve tried to kick-start the dialogue by offering up a series of lists – where I lob out a theme (i.e. “‘The Top Five Movies that Made this Grown Man Cry“) and then let you all have your say.
A few years back, I posted this piece as a way of signaling the start of the summer movie season. Rather than fixate on my Top Five Favorite Summer Movies, I decided to focus on indelible memories I hold that shall remain forever tattooed to a particular flick. While they are all tethered to movies actually released during summer months, looking over the list I realize these are my five favorite movie memories of all time – independent of release date. These movies always ignite those memories and whether the flick was any good or not; it will always hold a special place in my heart.
So, as I hit #28 in my ongoing Forty for Forty series, I decided to dust off this oldie – as the moments catalogued below certainly played their part in making me the guy I am today.
And away we go…
5. The Last Starfighter (1984 – Queen Anne’s Corner, Norwell MA)
I led with The Last Starfighter for a number of reasons. First, let’s get the movie out of the way. It’s not very good. An unabashed mash of Star Wars and Tron, Starfighter leads with the premise that an advanced alien civilization, locked in martial strife, has deposited training simulators disguised as stand-up arcade units, in order to pluck the best and brightest Earth has to offer in order to stave off a very real wave of space invaders. In a desolate trailer park, they find their mark in Alex (Lance Guest) who bests the machine’s high score. Next thing you know, he’s called upon to exercise those mad skillz to save the universe.
As a kid that premise was aces. This coming from a dude who spent the better half of a Summer ’82 bouncing my BMX off curbs in hopes it would fly like E.T. As an adult, well, let’s just say I enjoy more cerebral pursuits (speaking of which – when’s Jack & Jill coming on DVD?)
Nope, the reason this flick makes my list is for the movie memory that happens to open all Pandora-like onto a number of different treats.
First and foremost, this was the first double-feature I ever screened in a theater. Sure, that was a staple of my parent’s generation, but by the mid-80’s, the multiplexes were not given to doling out free flicks. So it was a rare treat when Starfighter was paired up with Conan the Destroyer.
As an aside, Conan played well to my peepers as well. I’ve never seen so many decapitations in a PG-rated flick not to mention it boasted the alluring charms of Olivia D’Abo as the nubile damsel in distress. A sublime bit of casting tempered by the fact that we were also threatened by Grace Jones in a thong. Hey, the producers knew what they were doing. With Conan playing alongside Starfighter – thus guaranteeing a packed house of pre-teens – no theater owner in the country could afford the clean-up costs should 268 post-adolescents achieve simultaneous puberty. By the grace of Jones, this flick had a built in cold shower for a reason.
The second factor was revealed to me years later (not too long ago in fact). Unbeknownst to me, my best bud Sean (whom I would not officially meet for another year or so) was also in attendance at that exact same screening. And once again, I thank Grace Jones. That could have just been real awkward.
Finally, and this is the real reason this film hits the list, The Last Starfighter was one flick, in a long line of films, that my beloved Uncle Ron took me to see. Throughout the lion’s share of my childhood, my Uncle Ron was always there for me. He is, without a doubt, one of the nicest and most generous people I have ever had the good fortune of knowing and from an early age, I took a real shine to him. He was the first person to introduce me to the Boston Museum of Science, where their colossal (and historically inaccurate T-Rex) fueled a life long obsession with those grand thunder lizards. He took me on hikes up Mt. Chocorua and let me vault the velvet rope of his own family’s travel itinerary to become the unofficial fifth Clarke on their various vacation road trips. And as mentioned, he brought me to enough genre flicks (think Dragonslayer, Clash of the Titans, King Kong Lives) to program the Sci-Fi channel for weeks. He (and my Aunt Sharon) had a hand in creating Vacation Man who begat Movie Man who morphed into the Family Man you see today. Their loving familial structure helped inform a lot of the values I hold dear today and I will always be thankful for the great memories they granted me.
4. Star Wars (1977 – Revere Beach Drive-In, Revere MA)
I am not even going to attempt a description of this flick. If you don’t know what it’s about, pick up a copy of Lego Star Wars II for the Xbox 360 and that ought to bring you up to speed. (I chose that reference as Colin and I are currently working our way through the original trilogy – although he is in the process of rewriting history as he insists Chewie accompany us on every mission – meaning it wasn’t Greedo who shot first, nor was it Han. IT WAS CHEWIE!!!)
This flick is on my list for the pure fact that my first memory of seeing Star Wars is not seeing Star Wars. Ya’ see, after a couple months of pressuring my parents to bring me to the movies, they finally relented in the long, hot August of ’77. (remember – this was the 70’s – WAAYYYYYYY BAAAAACCKKKKK before mass market cable and DVD – so hit movies ended up playing for years.) My parents decided that they’d make the screening an event so we loaded up the Family Truckster – adorned with the finest faux-wood paneling money could buy – and headed to the Revere Beach Drive-In to catch a twin bill of War of the Worlds and Star Wars.
Now, therein lies the rub. War of the Worlds runs approximately 85 minutes and Drive-In flicks don’t kick off until twilight shadows fall, so by my calculations, Star Wars wasn’t due to boot up and stream through the Truckster 8-Track until well after 9:30 p.m. Still, I was determined to stay awake and see this spectacle and thus I kept my peepers wide as saucers as the alien menace tore Gobbler’s Knob (or whatever that small town Gene Barry was protecting) a new one in WotW. Well, as it turns out, those three fingered bastards did more than irradiate a handful of cows. They also vaporized my will to wake. The final image I saw before nodding off for good was a scrolling scrawl of yellow text rushing off into a dense star field. It’s there in slumber land, that I spied a grand future where wooden child actors and Rastafarian muppets ceased to exist. Ahhh, per chance to dream.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 – Hanover Mall Cinemas 4, Hanover MA)
This was the film that made me want to become an archaeologist. Of course, at the tender age of 9, I was full on in lust with all manner of dinosaurs, and I couldn’t quite make the disconnect from paleontologist to archaeologist. I knew they both toiled at digging up dead things – and while my primary focus was on unearthing a plesiosaur, I knew it would please me greatly if I could dredge up the Lost City of Atlantis, too. Hey, there was always the hope of a two-fer, with the pregnant possibility of an army of Sleestaks staffing that civilization, running through my pre-tween brain.
Much like Starfighter, Raiders makes the list based on who brought me to see it.
I came to reside in Rockland, MA (having relocated from Everett) in 1979. In the summer of ’81, I was still the new guy – meaning it was hard making friends with the great bounty of boys and girls that populated my street. I had assembled a small cadre of cronies but for the most part, I was a year or so away from ruling the roost. In due time, I would be Chairman of the Crosswalk, but not there in the summer of ’81.
One guy that did take a shine to me was my next door neighbor Jay, who eclipsed my young age by several years. At this point in life, I can’t recall the exact particulars of that gulf, but it had to be wide enough as my parents often employed Jay as babysitter to my sisters and I. Having Jay as a babysitter beat the pants off of some random Jennifer, especially at that age, as I suddenly had the one thing I dreamed of most. A Big Brother. The fact that this guy didn’t treat me like a little guy – that he hung out and played Atari with me and tossed the ball around and toyed with my Star Wars figures was the icing on the cake. And, of course, he accompanied me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film of which I had zero knowledge of. Geez – just thinking of that fact – that I was able to experience Raiders (one of my top 5 favorite films) completely spoiler free. I yearn for that innocence again.
Of course, as is often the case in those sepia-hued flashbacks – real life intrudes. Whether it is an unfortunate bee-sting death (see lil’ Mac in My Girl) or a freak drowning (Bridge to Terabathia) – something terrible always robs us of our friends.
Relax! Jay’s not dead. But he did move. His parents plucked he and his sisters up and headed for Florida. The last I heard was his Dad muttering something about “sick and tired of this blue state crap” as the car sped south of the Mason-Dixon.
Of course, it wasn’t long before a new family settled into Jay’s house – including a little boy about 4 years my Junior. One would like to wish for the karmic ending, where I took Junior under my wing and treated him to Temple of Doom but unfortunately, real life has a way of kicking the door open. I tortured that kid endlessly. Serves him right for killing my friend.
2. Aliens (1986 – Hanover Mall Cinema 4, Hanover MA)
This was not the first R rated flick I saw in a theater (Rambo: First Blood Part II beat it by a year) but it was the first R rated flick that I absolutely dreaded seeing – yet somehow was compelled to watch.
While I was a horror fan in my early teens, I was one of those curiosity seekers who had to watch but felt nothing but nerves the entire time. Usually, the end result was much ado about nothing. I remember sampling several serial killer flicks (the Nightmare on Elm Street ilk) and feeling ho-hum about the proceedings. Through my experiments, I felt I was growing numb to the fear. Some of this may have been aided by my early habit for grabbing whatever Stephen King novel my Dad had lying around the house and thumbing the dog-eared copies looking for the good parts. When dissected liked that, even the scariest boogeyman loses his power.
But the very idea of Aliens unnerved me like no other. Some of that may go back to tiny fragments of conversations I cribbed from my parents years earlier, where on a ride to grandma’s house, my Mom regaled my Dad with details from her screening of Alien the night before. The description of the egg sacs and the chest bursting caused nightmares, sight unseen. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a time-traveling Deloreon and a Department of Social Services rep.
So some of that trepidation stuck to me like so much slime and when I got the courage to go see Aliens with a couple buddies from the neighborhood, I masked my fear with brat pack machismo. Hey, if these guys weren’t afraid, then neither was I.
Imagine my surprise when I bore witness to the most ass-kickingest, ball-bustingest display of action movie histrionics a fourteen year-old boy could ever hope to encounter. James Cameron kicked ass on a universal level and this film instantly became my favorite film of all time (at that time). I went back time and again that summer and craved every slime-soaked second of that film. Seeing as how Aliens has informed so many sci-fi action epics since then, I happen to think I wasn’t alone that summer.
1. There’s Something About Mary (1998 – Some Theater, Harwich MA)
First, an apology. Once you’ve finished wiping your screen of whatever liquid I made you expel, please accept my sincere regrets for having gifted you with that pleasant image above. Some of you shrieked with laughter. Some of you hurled your munchkins. Hey, it’s the same damn reaction we had back in 1998.
Now, this is not the finest movie on my list, and to be honest, following that gut-busting first 20 minutes, the rest of the movie settles into a spotty mix of amusing moments, flat-out misses and some big, big laughs. But, for my money, that opening sequence culminating in that closing shot, is the most I have ever laughed in a theater in my life. I am talking, ruptured spleen territory here.
But again, this list is about the movie memories and not necessarily the movies themselves, although for my number 1, the memory and the movie have a nice symbiotic relationship.
Ya’ see, in the summer of 1998, at the tail end of an absolutely fantastic vacation in Harwich, MA where my close circle of friends rented a beach house for the week, I received that phone call everyone dreads.
On a week brimming with one glorious sunny day after another – real picture-perfect weather – we all awoke to the one blight on the vacation – a Friday morning rain shower. A week boasting brilliant blues and hazy rays was suddenly punctuated with doom and gloom. While it was merely the luck of the forecast, the day’s backdrop would become alarmingly prescient for the news that was due.
Sometime around 10:30 a.m., the cottage phone rang. All week long, this phone had rung and the call had been for someone among my party. Never for me. How could it be? I was with all of my close friends and I hadn’t given the number out to anyone. So, it was with a bit of surprise that I greeted the news that the call was for me. Of course, nobody really ever thinks the worst until the worst intrudes upon them.
As I picked up the phone I was greeted by the booming voice of my number two in command at the office – who was holding down the fort while the boss was away. Immediately I detected something amiss. This was not going to be a standard – “Where are the TPS forms?” call. There was something more here. Something serious.
Jim quickly brought me up to speed to the tragic events that had occurred the night before. It turns out my work buddy, Rob Estrada, who also happened to be away on vacation that week – down in New Jersey hanging with his college homies – had been in a car crash the night before and had succumbed to his injuries.
Here was a guy, the exact same age as me in the exact same station in life with the exact same job and the exact same relationship set-up (a steady girl whom he was going to marry) – who had been suddenly and cruely… AND SENSELESSLY… claimed by death’s cool grip.
The news hit me… hard. I’ve been around death enough to know that it’s never easy but something about this just worked something loose in me. I was instantly unhinged.
A lot of it has to do with the fact that Rob was a genuinely great guy. Like I said, we shared a lot in common and our lives were, in a way, a mirror onto themselves. He and I had only been hanging around for a year or so but it was one of those fast friendships that defy temporal logic. Hey, it wasn’t our fault we never met in grade school. It sure felt like we had.
If there is ever a spot for the proverbial “It ain’t fair” then it’s right here. Rob’s death ain’t fair. Never was. Never will be. And I’m not sure I’ll ever make sense of the senselessness or accommodate that selfish spot in my life where a great friendship was beginning to grow. Fourteen years later, as I write this, my eyes still well. It’s a tough lot, this life can be.
It can also be beautiful.
That’s where my friends come in. Seeing my shattered countenance, they immediately surrounded and comforted me. Each one of them – each and every one of these blessed souls – who taken one by one make me the wealthiest man on Earth – taken collectively make me a man without worry – each of my dear friends provided an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, a heart to share. And one of them (I don’t recall who), finally suggested that in light of the rain and of the events of the day, that we should all go see a movie. And not some Hollywood action flick. Let’s see something funny.
There’s Something About Mary.
20 minutes in – and while my tears weren’t dry – my heart was soaring and I was laughing. I laughed my ass off. And later, as we capped the day with an evening excursion to Chatham Lighthouse Beach, where under the stars we all talked and joked and laughed and cried, I realized that from great sadness can come great joy.
And I realized that from some of our most painful memories, come some of our fondest.