There were two movie theaters in small-town Hamilton, Ohio: the Court Theater smack dab in downtown, cattycorner from the Butler County Courthouse and half a block from Elder-Beerman; then there was the tinier and presumably white theater on the West Side, just across the bridge crossing the Great Miami River.
My older brothers and/or parents took me or dropped me off at the Court to see all manner of racist Disney fare (Song Of the South; Jungle Book), Kung Fu flicks (all Bruce Lee and, later, Jim Kelly) and any blaxploitation that was popping up in the early 1970s.
The only movie I can clearly recall seeing on the West Side screen is Lady Sings the Blues in 1972.
I was 7 years old and my brothers and I were shuttled over there by Lena, our eccentric and totally inappropriate babysitter. The film is rated R, stars Diana Ross and Richard Pryor and tells the story of Billie Holiday’s bouts with Jazz, heroin, men, rape and racial violence.
My parents were finally splitting up the same year that movie came out and I took to the darkness in movie theaters from that point on as my own private Idaho of insular thinking, mourning and disappearance.
I may be only telling myself this because the great film critic Roger Ebert just died, but inside dark movie theaters is where I started to formulate my own opinions. I went from thinking critically about lighting, scripts, scenery, costumes and acting to voicing my opinions to teachers, then, bravely, my parents and friends.
My mother loved and encouraged it.
My father hated and tried squashing it.
Meanwhile, I kept going to movies.
Back when an R rating didn’t keep underaged teens out, I usually had to beg an adult to drive me, living as we were by then in the suburbs of Forest Park with our divorced father.
I cottoned to more sinister films that seemed like horror movies because the actions of the people in them were surreal and unpredictable.
I loved the films in which human beings were triumphing over evil — their own or the evil that other men did.
During this period my favorites were Roman Polanski’s epic Tess (1979) and Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978).
I was barely in junior high school and I was bored by my classmates’ preoccupations with Jackson Browne and The Eagles.
Sometime slightly prior to my obsession with literary-themed films — I can’t recall exactly when — I also became a morning news junkie, so I started watching Good Morning, America in the era of David Hartman partially as a way to stay awake in the wee, pre-walk-to-school weekday morning hours when I was on my own without parental oversight.
Little did I know at the time I was casually encountering a trifecta — no, the Three Graces — of what amounted to my autodidacticism.
That is, three loud, opinionated and self-made women who weren’t related to me but who nonetheless gave me permission to eventually become the same as them in my own way.
I always knew it was time to dash through the sliding patio door, across the backyard and between the neighbors’ houses after Erma Bombeck did her shtick.
I’d never seen such an unattractive woman on television before, a woman who looked like someone had literally just dragged her away from her pot roast in her suburban kitchen, but like Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and later Roseanne Barr, Bombeck made fun of herself as a way to get us past what we saw so we could laugh at the real horrors of her domestic hell and the demands of her selfish family.
From watching Bombeck, I had newfound respect for my mother and I was learning to be self-deprecatingly funny and whip-quick witty in school to pry classmates’ attention away from my unwieldy hair, oily, zit-prone skin, my funny-shaped body, my perpetually new-kid status and my weird interests.
I was writing and reading voraciously, and by junior high school my writing fate was set, especially after my mother gave me a Smith-Corona manual typewriter, a pack of onion skin erasable bond paper, a dictionary and a thesaurus.
But it was a long road from my yellow, stuffy bedroom in the cul-de-sac of HolyOke Drive to here.
By my senior year of high school in 1983, I knew college wasn’t for me but everyone else in my house was going or trying to, so I went, too, and I failed miserably after three at-bats (except in English, literature and writing courses, of course) and I finally dropped out for good in 1986.
By then, my predictable escapism into films was in lockstep with my determination to be a writer, and the new wave of British films like Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Prick Up Your Ears (1987) along with Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986) blew my mind and I spent as much time studying the cut-and-paste serial killer looking calendar of The Real Movies rep cinema as I did reading anything I could get my hands on, but only after I cleared my mailbox of rejection letters from literary journals.
Serendipitously, I came across And So It Goes: Adventures In Television by Linda Ellerbee (1986) and The Corpse Had A Familiar Face: Covering Miami, America’s Hottest Beat by Edna Buchanan (1987), the remaining of my Three Graces’ tomes of intelligence, dark humor and honest reporting of the flagrant sexism of the day.
During all this time, my eye was trained on Roger Ebert, who was writing (!) about movies (!) and who advised aspiring young critics how they might get started in film criticism: 1) Go see movies and 2) Write critically about what you saw.
See, back then there weren’t fancy course titles in rarified English departments for wannabe critics, columnists and buffs.
It found you then you found your way, leaving a legacy along the way.
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