House-sitting for your dad over winter break, we encounter our first VCR. No video stores exist yet. We watch all the movies stacked beside the TV in the spare bedroom (mostly Hitchcock). Then one night we trek across the fog-and-shadows campus to many-corridored Dwinelle Hall (home of film studies as well as classics, drama, rhetoric, linguistics, history and comparative literature).
After unlocking the film department’s office door with your dad’s key, we sneak around, whispering, cracking open cabinets and rolling out metal drawers, finding tapes of Fritz Lang’s films, some by Orson Welles, a couple by Anthony Mann. Your dad’s predilection for film noir informs our taste and imaginations. Breaking into that old fashioned office, our hearts thumping, we half-expect to find pistols in the drawers of the big oak desks, whiskey bottles in the metal filing cabinets and neon lights flashing through the venetian blinds instead of the Campanile’s mild glow.
Over the next twelve months, video stores open around town and my parents buy a VCR. We’re living in their basement now. After our classes at the university, we tramp the two miles home from campus via a camera shop, Palmers, now also renting old movies out of a small back room. Their no-security system means selecting a choice from among the empty boxes and waiting while the punk behind the counter looks for the cassette, the tips of his green Mohawk moving above the shelves.
Weekday afternoons, upstairs, curtains drawn, we watch movies instead of studying. If we hear a key in the lock, we slip down to our basement den. Not that my parents would mind finding us there, but we enjoy our independence. No more staying up until the small hours to catch tap-dancing Fred and Ginger broken into by commercials for ginsu knives and adjustable beds, while my dad haunts the hallway in his bathrobe.
Our New Home
We’re adults now, with a small fixer-upper, a wild garden and four semi-feral cats. We’ve graduated from Palmer’s to local chain video stores. Yet we continue to trespass into my parents’ home several afternoons a week to use their VCR. It’s puzzling why we let this situation continue as long as it does.
Your dad shows up on our front porch unannounced two days after I give birth to his first grandson. In one arm he hugs a sack of pre-Trader Joe’s gourmet snacks, in the other his old VCR. With a knowing chuckle, he hands over his gifts, and retreats, barely glancing at Max. You drive off to rent a movie and I don’t mind when you return with Jailhouse Rock. Dopey from lack of sleep, we move the TV into our bedroom and watch Elvis carrying on at the foot of our bed, Max in his bassinet beside us.
For months we enjoy an old movie every evening with Max latched onto my breast or lying between us on the bed in his carrier, while the lazy golden autumn light glows through the window curtains. We devour quantities of buffalo wings and pecan pie and other spicy or sweet junk. You get pudgy; I’m nursing, so I don’t, much.
We watch so voraciously that the video store’s offerings begin to seem limited. We’re tired, uncritical consumers of every genre from screwball comedies and murder mysteries to westerns and musicals. Eventually, we develop a slight fear of running out of movies and a larger terror of sleep deprivation. After those two pleasant sloppy twilight hours in bed, the long night is a rough journey into noir.
Hard to watch much with a baby crawling around or bouncing in the doorway in his bumper-jumper, though we do try.
Max starts spending some Saturday nights at my parents’ house. We enjoy movies, love, sleep.
Max is eight when we declare that Sunday night will be movie night. We avoid taking him with us to the video store after that George of the Jungle versus Bringing Up Baby altercation.
Video technology is old now, and we take for granted the once-astonishing freedom to watch what we like when we like. During show time, the crappy, worn-out video cassettes require pausing, squirts of liquid cleaner and fiddling with tracking.
Some movies disappoint. Arsenic and Old Lace isn’t what either of us remember. But when a classic captivates Max, It Happened One Night, say, and we’re getting double vision watching it with our old eyes and his fresh ones, our happiness is fierce.
We buy a DVD player. Feeling too poor to afford our own Netflix account, we share disks with my parents. Not an ideal situation.
We spend too much time at the public library looking for free DVDs and spending too many dollars on fines for late discs, usually for the ones we never viewed.
Max insists we watch his TV shows, too, mostly nerdy British stuff. I decide my favorite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston.
Sick of borrowing discs from my parents and the library, you start downloading movies from torrenting sites, claiming that the practice is semi-legal, the moral issues not as black and white as the movies themselves. You explain something about public domain, but I’m remembering unlocking the film department’s office door that night. How many movies have we watched together since then? How many laws have we (you) bent?
At least we’re no longer dependent on my parents.
By the time Max starts high school, we know he watches movies online, some good, many awful. We no longer can guide his taste. However he continues join us for movie night, though the features lean toward mysteries and sci-fi, now, away from musicals and comedies. No more Technicolor Disney flicks with Hayley Mills, his first love.
The end was inevitable. Still, when we watch our last movie together during winter break, Max’s junior year, we don’t know it’s over. Later, we’re sad.
Legal or not, torrenting provides us with new old movies and a new hobby. Almost every day, you peer at your computer screen while scrolling through black and white images, or sometimes garish color images, searching for pristine prints and unusual offerings.
With Max gone, we’re back to watching what we like, when we like. It’s nice. No time has passed, it seems. But then at the health food store you go, “Lennnntils,” in a sad-sack voice when we pass the bulk bins and I giggle, remembering the hippie from The Young Ones. Really, twenty years have passed and, among other things, we’ve consumed every episode of Black Adder, The Young Ones, Red Dwarf, and way too much Doctor Who. What if we’d had a daughter or a different kind of son? We’d be different people now. Max is a part of us and we of him–in ways and to degrees we can’t always understand.
Even if Max doesn’t remember enjoying Singin’ in the Rain when he was ten, the experience is still there inside of him, I hope. A few times when I refer to movies we watched together, Max says he’s forgotten them. But then in his sophomore year, he emails to tell us he’s introduced his college girlfriend to the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup) and Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train) at the local art house. We’re giddy with pride.
And yet, the sexism in those old movies gets to me more than it once did. Maybe I’m less willing to make allowances, to take the male point of view. At nineteen, I wanted to be the trench-coated noir hero, not the dame on his arm. Maybe Max’s girlfriend is better off without the movies twisting her mind.
You and I discuss this. The films are art, you say. Some of them are, I agree. Others, seen a second time, are only entertainment, or trash, or a mixture of all these. We argue and don’t reach much of a conclusion, but that’s okay, because we still have tomorrow to continue the conversation. You worry that I’ll stop watching old movies with you. Not as long as you keep talking with me, I say. Of course, I won’t.
Simone Martel is the author of a memoir, The Expectant Gardener, and a story collection, Exile’s Garden. She’s published essays and stories in many journals including Hip Mama, Horticulture and The Main Street Rag. A recent interview with Simone can be found on the website Flora’s Forum. She lives in Berkeley, California.