This should wrap up our current nostalgia kick, with the obvious question to ask after the last two AVQ&As: What films did you discover earliest in life that are still on your favorites list?
According to family legend, the first film I was exposed to in the theater was a revival of The Sound Of Music, when I was about 4. It was in one of the big old traditional revival theaters, the kind designed like (and possibly originally serving as) a vaudeville theater, with an actual stage, and heavy curtains covering the screen until they were whisked open at showtime. As a kid, I loved parts of The Sound Of Music—the parts with the singing, dancing family, the puppet show, and all those kids scrambling around the beautiful countryside in uncomfortable-looking playsuits made out of curtains. But eventually, the movie gets talky, grim, and political. Which, again according to family legend, is about the time I got bored and took off on my own. Mom didn’t notice I was missing until she saw my silhouette at the bottom of the screen, because I’d climbed up on the stage to do some dancing of my own. In my defense, I sat through the film another half-dozen times later in childhood, and I rediscovered it as an adult and was pleasantly surprised at how well it holds up as a story, how much I’d missed in my childhood viewings (especially during the part where I was dancing onstage instead of following the plot), and how emotionally moving Julie Andrews’ performance still is, whether she’s celebrating life, falling in love, or rescuing her husband onstage when he falters in the face of all those glaring Nazis.
When I was a kid, I loved to climb a rickety spiral staircase to the projectionist’s booth of my grandmother’s movie theater. She didn’t own that little twin-screener in a strip mall in Englewood, Florida, but as the manager, she would let me and my little brother climb all over that place like a couple of monkeys. I was bolted into a theater seat, though, when my 5-year-old self saw Star Wars during its initial run in the summer of 1977. It was the first time a movie completely ensorcelled me, for all the reasons that have become Gen-X clichés. I’ve suffered the same ups and downs with the franchise since then that everyone has, but nothing George Lucas has done or could do will ever wilt the flutter of butterflies I still get every time I watch A New Hope. I haven’t been to Englewood in 30 years, so I have no idea if that strip mall, that theater, or those spiral stairs even exist anymore. Then again, Star Wars doesn’t officially exist in its original form anymore either, so I guess I should try to be philosophical about the whole thing.
Scott Von Doviak
I left my affection for Star Wars behind in childhood and never looked back, but I still find myself watching Jaws at least once a year. It was already my favorite movie before I’d even seen it; as an 8-year-old living on a Navy base overseas in the summer of ’75, I’d hear all about this exciting shark movie every time a new arrival from the States showed up on the playground. I had entire scenes memorized by the time it finally appeared on the base theater’s schedule, and I still remember the giddy anticipation I felt as I pedaled my bike to the one-night-only showing. Of course, it was everything I’d hoped it would be (and I even knew when to cover my eyes right before Ben Gardner’s head popped out from under his boat). Back then it was all about the shark, but as the years went on, I came to appreciate the film’s other qualities: its rich sense of time and place, the interplay of its central trio of characters, its sure-handed blend of humor, horror, and suspense. Spielberg’s film gets much of the blame for launching Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, and maybe that’s deserved, but if today’s tentpoles were even half as good as Jaws, we’d never complain about them.
As a fellow worshipper at the altar of Bruce the shark, I can only echo Scott’s sentiments. Jaws wasn’t the first movie I ever saw, but it was my introduction to the basic concept that there are ways of telling a simple story that make it seem fresher, funnier, more exciting, more surprising, and just add up to a movie-going experience that’s more than just an excuse to sit in the dark and shovel popcorn into your mouth while waiting for the next not-totally-boring part. Not only did it elevate my expectations for movies by showing me what was possible, but it also ruined me for the seminal pop-culture experience of my generation. They re-released Jaws early in the summer of 1977, and this handy reminder of its supremacy above all other cinematic cheap-thrill delivery systems just made it that much more bewildering to me that everyone else on the playground wanted to talk about this Buck Rogers rip-off starring the guy who was replaced with Grant Goodeve when Eight Is Enough went to series. “Guys,” I would tell people when the conversation turned to Star Wars, “I’ve looked into it. There is no shark in this movie.”
I don’t know the first time I saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I must’ve been young. I know I saw it in theaters multiple times, and at least one of those times was at the drive-in. But it wasn’t one of those movies I could watch over and over again, not like Return Of The Jedi or Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom or Back To The Future. There was something different about E.T. Watching it was more intense somehow, more exhausting and raw and something big in my chest I couldn’t describe. The other movies I loved were fun and exciting; they were worlds I wanted to live in. But E.T. was just the world, even though it had aliens and my parents weren’t divorced, and I was growing up on the other side of the country. It’s the first movie I knew would make me cry every time I watched it. And it didn’t matter how many times I watched it, or how well I knew that E.T. didn’t die—he was just going to pull a quick Jesus Christ-as-a-gnome impression and everything would be happy again. When they loaded his white, shriveled little body into a coffin (with a window), I’d break. But maybe it wasn’t even about being sad, because I’d cry at the ending, too. Just having that kind of perfect moment, of someone telling you you’re special and loved and they’ll always remember you… Okay, that’s a bit on the heavy side. All I’m saying is, I’ve always loved E.T., as a kid and even as a dumb old grown-up, because I always feel completely open and sad and happy watching it. I hope I don’t ever lose that.
Just like with nearly every science-fiction movie that came out during my childhood, my dad took me to see Blade Runner when it was in theaters. As a 9-year-old, I had no awareness, much less comprehension, of the deep philosophical underpinnings of the movie. I did know that it was pretty awesome that Han Solo got to chase down murderous robots (yes, I know now replicants are more like clones than robots, but as a kid I was not clear on that) in a flying car, and that was enough. As I became a teenage nerd, I appreciated it for its amazing style and mood and the sweet Vangelis soundtrack. In adulthood, I finally appreciated it for those questions about what makes us human, as well as for the incredible craft of the film itself. It also served as a point of introduction to the work of Philip K. Dick, who’s still my favorite science-fiction writer/philosopher. That’s a lot of angles of appreciation for one single film, especially since it still totally connects as a movie about hunting down killer robots in a flying car. No wonder it’s still one of my top 10, even after 30 years.
Given that I was running behind in submitting my answer to this question, I’m kind of amazed that I’m the first person to say this, but also given how far back my fully formed memories of the movie goes, I can’t imagine there’s any film I’ve loved longer than The Wizard Of Oz. It wasn’t the first film I saw in the theater—although I don’t remember it, my mother assures me that that particular honor goes to Dumbo—but back in those prehistoric days before VCRs were commonplace in lower-middle-class families, I was always beside myself whenever I learned that CBS would be doing their annual screening of The Wizard Of Oz, curling up in front of the television and thrilling to every instant of the film. I particularly remember waiting with giddy anticipation for that wonderful moment when the proceedings shift from black and white to glorious color. If there’s any sadness that I associate with the film, it’s that, in looking back at it now, I realize that my generation was probably the last who could enjoy the odd thrill of seeing cast members of the film continue to unexpectedly turn up in other films, on various TV series, or, most unlikely of all, hawking coffee. Indeed, the only reason I still indulge in Maxwell House on occasion is because I can rationalize, “Well, if it’s good enough for the Wicked Witch of the West…”
My life’s path was partially dictated by my dad working at a Coldwell Banker in a mall in suburban Milwaukee when I was a child. Thankfully that mall happened to have a movie theater where I would see everything that wasn’t rated R. I fell in love with the movies during those trips to the multiplex (though this was so long ago it might have been before the introduction of multiplexes), but one movie that stands out in my mind is Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Merely writing those words invokes a Pavlovian/Proustian shiver of joy and excitement and sends the carnival-esque strains of Danny Elfman’s main theme soaring through my cerebellum. To my 9-year-old self, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was just about perfect. It was paced like the runaway boulder in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, filmed like a live-action cartoon from the Frank Tashlin/Tex Avery era of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and filled with unforgettable setpieces, characters, and lines. The image of Large Marge haunted my nightmares for weeks after I first saw the film, but it was a good kind of fear. At age 9, it felt like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was everything a movie should be: fun, exciting, liberating, joyous, and even terrifying at times. And I still think of it as a perfect movie; time has done nothing to diminish its life-affirming charm and irrepressible enthusiasm.
Well, there is no other answer except The Little Mermaid for me. I liked that film before I even saw it, which we presumably can chalk up to Disney’s rather excellent branding and marketing. The first thing I remember asking for from my parents was The Little Mermaid on VHS; when I finally did get it, I watched it so many times I ended up being able to recite the entire movie. (I can still do this, with some prompting.) I still love The Little Mermaid, because even though its message for little girls is nothing short of problematic, it is a masterwork that set the stage for the great Disney revival that dominated children’s cinema for the next decade. There would be no Disney Princesses without feisty Ariel to lead the way. The quality of the animation still holds up, even in our era of CGI—if anything, it’s even more impressive to see King Triton’s vast undersea dominion rendered entirely by hand. (The animators also seem to have spent most of the movie exquisitely detailing every strand of Ariel’s hair, which flows and whips around her like an extension of her character.) It has a killer soundtrack, with some of Disney’s greatest numbers, including that universal ballad of a preteen girl’s becoming, “Part Of Your World.” The story still holds up for me (although the line “I’m 16, I’m not a child!” has become most horrifying as I’ve grown up)—the theme of rebelling against your parents to find yourself is a pretty common one—as it is so tailored to the wants and fears of little girls, even now. Plus, the sidekicks are all so cute! Who doesn’t love the scene where Scuttle rallies the entire ocean to save Eric on his marriage cruise of death?
I can’t remotely remember the first time I watched Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but for the next decade I planned to be an archaeologist. When I found out the job didn’t involve dodging giant boulders and face-melting occult objects, I sort of lost steam on the subject. But I never stopped loving Raiders (and the rest of the series, really—I have an odd soft-spot for Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, even though I understand it’s a horrid movie that involves Shia LaBeouf swinging from trees like Tarzan). The movie is a perfect blend of action, comedy, and poignant moments for its main characters. Hell, even the MacGuffin is a real thing, actually something a professor of history would want to find instead of some mumbo jumbo. (Okay, it is mumbo jumbo, but it at least its mumbo jumbo that reverberates throughout Western culture, not the freaking allspark.) No matter what mood I’m in, I’d happily watch Harrison Ford being dragged from the back of a Nazi truck. What more could you ask for?
My house growing up was not one of pop-culture exploration: You watched what was on TV, you enjoyed it well enough, and then you moved on. Trips to the theater were rare treats, so most movies I remember from my childhood were those I discovered once they hit their broadcast and basic-cable runs. (This had the lovely side effect of not really seeing movies in their true form until I was a teenager. Did you know people get naked and say bad words in movies sometimes? Shocking!) Of all the films I watched on those lazy Saturdays, the one that shaped my future pop-culture interests most was The Princess Bride. I watched it obsessively, scanning the television listings in the paper each week and noting when it aired, making sure I tuned in each time. I had never seen anything like it before, with its mix of love story, fantasy, humor, adventure, and fairy tale, and this blending of genres is something I still seek out in new entertainment to this day. We never owned the VHS, but it was on television enough that it got to the point where I could recite almost the entire film. Now when I watch it, I can appreciate just how clever the source material is, how delicate a balance the film is, and how horribly it all could have gone wrong in the adaptation. No movie could ever be perfect, but The Princess Bride is as close as it comes for me, and although I own the DVD and watch it regularly, it brings me just as much joy to randomly catch it on television today as it did all those years ago.
I was 6 years old when I saw a commercial for Star Wars on TV, and went running into my mom’s room, saying, “There’s a new movie about spaceships, and it’s got a big monkey in it!” Back then, my brother and I were given a choice every Saturday between going to the skating rink or to the movie theater, and because my brother hated skating, we went to a movie almost every week. Since Star Wars was “held over” for months at our little small-town two-plex, I saw it four times during its original run. And yet Star Wars isn’t my answer to this question, because while I loved it then and love it still, it didn’t affect me nearly as much as Singin’ In The Rain did, the first time I saw it, when I was 10. I was spending the night at the house of a friend whose dad had one of the earliest versions of a videodisc player. After the whole family watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Muppet Movie, everyone else went to sleep, and I stayed up to watch Singin’ In The Rain, which the mom of the family had popped in while all the youngsters crawled into their sleeping bags. My parents weren’t movie buffs per se, so I had no real frame of reference for what I was seeing. I only know that as soon as Gene Kelly started telling a reporter his tall-tale version of early Hollywood, I was hooked. I was expecting a movie that old to be boring; I was not expecting it to be so funny and sharp. About five years later, our family got our first VCR. The first movie I asked for? Singin’ In The Rain.
Having sacrificed the memory of my first Ghostbusters viewing in order to remember more important things like my wedding day and multiplication tables, I can only recall the sensation of being introduced to the best comedy of the 1980s: fear. A decomposing cabbie and Sumerian hellhounds could’ve had me swearing off cinema forever, but such was my zeal for the film’s animated spinoff that I kept coming back to the original article. I’d peer at the scary bits through my fingers, then marvel at the movie magic of Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Eventually, I noticed there were people in the movie, too, and spent my adolescence trying to be as sarcastically cool as Peter Venkman (though the record shows I’m much more of an Egon). Ensuing decades have reshaped the film as an unassailable nerd-fetish object, but I think protecting the film from “outsiders” and denying its faults do Ghostbusters (and any movie, really) a disservice. Because if we don’t acknowledge that our impression of a film can evolve over time, then we’re all just kids hiding behind the couch whenever we hear Mick Smiley’s “Magic.”
I wish I had a cooler answer, but 30 years ago this July, my sister took me to see Mr. Mom, and it easily reigns as the film I’ve seen the most times and loved the longest. Granted, a good chunk of my adoration comes from nostalgia, but I still genuinely laugh when I watch it. (The less said of the film’s gender politics— courtesy of the never-too-progressive John Hughes—the better, but hey, it was a different era.) And it’s a film I still revisit: Last year, we introduced it to my nieces and nephew. (They were fans.) A few months ago, when my wife’s pregnancy took an unexpected turn that landed us in the hospital for a few days before she gave birth, we spent our first night in her shared room, squeezed onto her bed and watching Mr. Mom on my laptop. I’d say it was a glimpse into our future, but please, I know not to give a baby chili.
I didn’t really get into movies until my sophomore year of college, but I did have an inexplicable Hitchcock phase in high school. I have no idea why, but I broke from new releases and oldies like Star Wars to investigate Hitchcock one fall. I only saw five or six of his movies, though it seemed like more at the time: I DVR-ed Dial M For Murder. My friends and I rented North By Northwest twice. I had my mom tell me the twist to Psycho before I would dare visit the Bates Motel. But the one that I most treasured then and now is Vertigo, and I first caught it by accident. Channel-surfing brought me to it partway through the opening credits as it played on one of the Turner networks. First the surprise bewitched me, then later, the themes, but it’s been a favorite ever since.
My mother was an old-movie aficionado, someone who knew the classics backward and forward. While I wasn’t allowed to watch many of the new releases while growing up in the ’80s, I did end up seeing a huge number of older films, many of which I love to this day. Yet no film has resonated with me for longer than Lawrence Of Arabia, one of my mother’s favorites and one that I saw only piecemeal as a child. The pieces were so hypnotically gorgeous that they burrowed into my subconscious and stayed there, lingering until I was finally able to see the whole film, straight through, later on in life. The music, too, became a rich part of my experience, and I can remember long, warm summer evenings concluding as I lay in bed, drifting off, listening to my mother hammer out Maurice Jarre’s famous theme on the piano. I doubt I got much out of Lawrence other than the images at that young age, but the images were so potent that they drove me forward, on over the horizon, toward whatever came next.
It seems like there were a stack of about five VHS tapes that my brother and I went through in heavy rotation as kids, not so much because we loved them, but because they were there: Sister Act, An American Tail, and Lady And The Tramp were among these. But one that we watched and re-watched and that I’d still watch today is Little Shop Of Horrors. While some of the darker elements of the movie musical went over my head when I was younger, I still loved the songs, the sets, and the characters (especially Steve Martin’s Dr. Scrivello, John Candy’s Wink Wilkinson, and Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon). LSOH held a place in my heart even as I grew to an age where normally I’d shun things I liked in childhood, but I remember having a friend from high school sleep over once. We watched the movie, then lay in bed singing the soundtrack until we fell asleep. I rewatched it recently after having forgotten about the movie for a few years and was pleased to see how well it held up. It was funnier and more cutting than I remembered, and I recalled way more lines than I would have expected. (“Better ourselves? Mister, when you from Skid Row, ain’t no such thing.”) It was also heartwarming to see, in Nathan Rabin’s review of the director’s cut last year, that I was not the only one who loved that movie as a kid, and who didn’t mind a reworked ending where poor Seymour and Audrey get the happy ending they so deserve.
It took me a long time to figure this one out because, like Will, the movie I was exposed to the earliest was more than likely The Wizard Of Oz. I watched it a lot over several years, especially when the networks used to show it sometime around Easter, then put it back in the vault for another year. But I can’t say I’ve seen it all that many times over the last 20 years or so, even synched up with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. But I do still watch one of the first movies I ever saw in the theater—Star Wars. Unlike Jason, I saw it a year after it came out, when it was re-released after its mega-hit 1977 theatrical run. That’s what happened with hit movies in the pre-VCR days: The studios re-released them to theaters to gather in more armfuls of dough. And I think seeing it at 7 was a good thing; I don’t think I would have had much recollection of the movie had I seen it at 6. I loved it for the same reasons every kid did: the well-defined good vs. evil characters, the laser shoot-outs, the scrapes the good guys got out of, and the fact that good won out over evil in the end. But what stuck with me the most was seeing Obi-Wan cut down by Darth Vader. It was my first exposure to the death of a beloved character in the movies, and the sight of Obi-Wan’s cloak collapsing to the floor freaked me out until I saw his “presence” in The Empire Strikes Back.