When Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl came out, I was seventeen and immediately in love with Orlando Bloom. I went to see it twice in theaters – such was the magic of the original film, for me. Three years later, I was in college and the magic had worn off after I noticed the same musical theme in Gladiator and went on a gimmicky cruise excursion themed around the movie. I was awakening to the realization that Orlando Bloom was part of a franchise carefully formulated to make me buy stuff (which I did), and that neither the music nor the writing was terribly original.
But back to college. That year – three years after the first POTC movie – I found myself in the university library, stifling my giggles as my friend and I loaded the absurdly large Laser Disc version of Brazil into a Laser Disc player hooked to an absurdly small tube television. We huddled together squinting at the screen while wearing ancient (enormous) headphones, and experienced the bizarre piece of cultural criticism that is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. As we switched to the second disc (snorting with laughter at the necessity for two giant discs to hold one average-length movie), it occurred to me how oddly appropriate it was for us to be sitting there, next to the microfiche section, struggling to make sense of this technology. Our equipment might have fit into the film itself, whose setting is neither of the future nor of the past, but an odd mixture of both. In a genius move, Gilliam chose to use props that might have fit in the 1940s, but with imagined modern improvements, such that the film (loosely based on 1984), exists in no particular time at all – something which adds to the weird experience of viewing it.
Fast forward about eight years, and you find me sitting on my couch in West Virginia, estranged from the friend with whom I giggled over Laser Discs, watching Pirates of the Caribbean just because it is on TV. The man who plays Elizabeth’s father comes on screen – an actor named Jonathan Pryce. I know him, somehow. By strange coincidence, I had been reading about the circumstances surrounding Brazil’s release the day before, and so it comes to me quickly. I am transported back to the university library, and I see him on the tiny tube television screen. Jonathan Pryce played Sam, the lead role, in Brazil. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed aloud, confusing and startling my husband.
This happens to me fairly often. Connections between two films, otherwise unrelated in time and subject, lead to connections between two unrelated times in my life – where the story has changed, but one actor (me) has not. The other day, researching my birthday tribute to Chris Hemsworth, for instance, I learned that not only is Alexander Skarsgard playing the role of Tarzan in an upcoming movie, he also played the role of Meekus in Zoolander about a decade ago. And then I was sixteen, working on a science project with my friend (now surgeon) in her basement, watching Zoolander together (we memorized the lines). Then I was even younger, reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels, recommended to me by my father, shocked at the difference between the chest-thumping violence of the books, and the Disney movie with tree-surfer Tarzan and music composed by Phil Collins.
It doesn’t even need to be an actor. My relationship with media is such that there is a trail through my life blazed with actors, musical themes, intros. Watching The Newsroom the other night, I revisited times in my life spanning an entire decade. The HBO theme took me back to the summer I spent watching Sex and the City after my parents went to bed, having borrowed my friend’s box set. The Newsroom theme itself took me back to a little over a year ago, when we had just moved into our house and I was heavily pregnant. It was one of the last shows we watched, just the two of us, and the intro music still makes me misty-eyed.
It seems to me that human memory must have changed with the advent of film and television. Perhaps, in the 19th century, one could put together a picture of their life based on the books they read, and when they read them, but these memories must have been quieter and much less visual – at least so I assume. And I wonder if people were so often assaulted (for lack of a better word) by memories, when they were much less likely to hear the same theme, or see the same actor, that they heard or saw a decade before. There was no HBO theme, and you could not immediately view the sum of an actor’s career, as we can now. In a way, we, like Brazil, exist in no particular time at all, because we can easily go back to any year we want, through film.
Or maybe it’s just me.
I’ll end this meditation on film and memory with a trip through my life, following the “film” trail (as opposed to the “book” trail, the “trips” trail, or the “favorite songs” trail – note that these trails occasionally intersect). **I’m not claiming these are good films – they just stand out**
Pre-school: Peter Pan
My grandmother had a copy of a TV movie version of the Peter Pan musical, in which the lead is played by a woman. I believe it is one of the versions starring Mary Martin, but it hardly matters, now. At some point, when I was very small, we watched this during a visit, and it was magic. All I remember now is the scene in which Peter plays with shadows, and thereafter playing with shadows myself. I created shadow puppets on my bedroom wall, and jumped in an effort to separate myself from my shadow, as Peter was separate from his. It was a time before cynicism, when such things felt real.
Elementary School: The Lion King
The summer before third grade, I was not a happy child. I can’t tell you why (though I have a few guesses). Despite all the comforts of an upper middle class childhood, and despite being generally liked, I was lonely. Of course, for any lonely child, the loneliest of days is their birthday. On my eighth birthday, I was at Summer SACC, where I had spent summers for all of my school-attending life, and where I dreaded field trips and mandatory outdoor time, because I was (and am) terrified of bees and other winged insects. Perhaps I had embarrassed myself by screaming and running away from a bee that day, and that’s why I ate my lunch wrapped in a gloom of self-pity on my birthday. But there, with my tuna sandwich and carrot sticks, was a note from my mother, wishing me a happy birthday, and there was a little Simba toy. The Lion King, therefore, has been since that summer a reminder of unconditional love, and of that little girl who was lonely on her birthday.
Adolescence: Top Secret!
Before Top Gun, there was Top Secret! When I was in high school, my family spent nearly every weekend together (what?!) in a cabin in the woods (where?!) without air conditioning or separate living and dining spaces. There, on an old tube TV (the kind with a dial for volume and individual channel buttons), we watched movies and TV at my brother’s discretion. Before he was into Hitchcock, he was into Mel Brooks and ZAZ (makers of Airplane! and other exclamatory films). One of the most memorable films was Top Secret!, which starred none other than Val Kilmer and Omar Sharif, among others. This film, in which an american pop star infiltrates a Nazi camp disguised as a cow, at one point, is ridiculous, and horrible, and funny, and united my family in laughter when most families with two teenagers struggled to have basic dinner conversation.
Interestingly, there is overlap between Top Secret! and my next movie, although I’m not sure you could find two movies more dissimilar.
College: Doctor Zhivago
I can’t remember exactly when I started loving Doctor Zhivago, but it was sometime during late high school, and it is a love which has lasted for more than a decade. It stars Omar Sharif as Yuri… how he went from Doctor Zhivago to Top Secret! is anyone’s guess, but there’s certainly no doubt he’s versatile. Anyway…
On Sunday evenings, after my brother went to college, I, like any normal teenager, watched Masterpiece Theater with my parents. One night, I stayed up particularly late watching Doctor Zhivago. At least, I imagine I did – I don’t actually recall. I imagine my dad sat on the couch, as he usually did during Masterpiece Theater, with a glass of wine and brie and pretzels (which he would offer me each time, and I would refuse, because brie is weird). As we watched, my dad told me about viewing it for the very first time as a boy when they were living overseas. He was then about 13. At that time, he explained, he was in love with Tonya, but when he watched again as a young man, he favored Lara. He went on to study Russian history, and this time looked at Tonya and Lara no longer as women, but as Boris Pasternak’s representations of Russia. So, while Doctor Zhivago is a great movie on its own, it’s made even greater to me because in it is a portrait of my dad – boy, man, scholar, eater of brie.
Late College: Singin’ in the Rain
When my husband and I first started dating, we were just beginning the final semester of college, and so each had one course chosen simply to serve as a break from senior capstone work. Rather than skip these classes to hang out ALL THE TIME because we had to hang out ALL THE TIME because we were so into each other and you just wouldn’t understand, we attended our easy A’s together, occasionally. That’s how I found myself in a dark amphitheater-style classroom, sneaking a look at him as he cried while Gene Kelly revealed the true star of The Dancing Cavalier.
Early Adulthood: Ted
Yes, the one about the guy whose best friend is a teddy bear. My husband and I went to see this the weekend it came out. I wore a purple shirt and the maternity skirt I had bought a couple weeks earlier, thinking the time had come when I could legitimately wear it. In the kitchen, before we left, we marveled at how I was starting to show. We went out, my husband and I, hyper aware of anything child-related, noticing every baby, every toddler. I was 11 weeks pregnant. We were in love. We were excited. We were afraid. The Monday after, I had an appointment with my midwife, at which an ultrasound showed that there was nothing where there had once been a heartbeat, and there followed one of the darker periods of my adult life. Ted has the dubious honor of marking the beginning of it. Unfortunately, I will never forget that it exists.
It will be interesting to see, over the next few years, which films become signposts in my autobiography. The films that have stood out from the first (more than) 25 years of my life are so arbitrary – often not what I would expect to remember – but each serves as a kind of time capsule, not just for the time in which they were created, but for the time I first watched them.