When we first see Gordie LaChance , it is autumn, a time of endings, of dying things. He gazes aimlessly out of his car window, his face blank with memory. As the daylight begins to wane in the rural field around him, he watches a few young kids putter along innocently on bicycles. He has grown old.
Stand By Me is so clearly a film borne out of wistful reflection that this opening series of shots establishing the somber Richard Dreyfuss as Gordie LaChance, The Writer behind this story, is hardly necessary. From the dreamy soft lighting to the almost nauseatingly “of the time” soundtrack, the movie is one with its neck eternally craned to the past. Yet, the opening scene carries a real evocative melancholy; something that feels old fashionedly honest. So, even if it isn’t wholly needed, it feels altogether welcome. Unfortunately, after that opening, Dreyfuss quickly wears out that welcome. His frank and painfully expository narration permeates the entire film and never seems to illuminates very much other than what was already explicitly obvious.
In one scene, Casey Siemaszko and Gary Riley’s characters are driving around in two convertibles and hitting mailboxes with their baseball bats. Dreyfuss then enlightens the audience with the totally vital information that “About this time, Charlie and Billy were playing mailbox baseball.” Even more egregiously, he frequently talks over far more important and affecting scenes with commentary that explicates every theme in the film to death, not allowing the audience to even attempt to come to their own conclusions. There’s a moment where Dreyfuss’s younger counterpart, played by Wil Wheaton, sits by the railroad early one morning and watches a deer in its natural habitat. It’s a scene of beautiful simplicity, the kind only childhood can manufacture; a formative second that means far more than anyone could say. Dreyfuss, of course, needs to start narrating over the whole thing, beating the moment into the heads of the audience. “I never told anyone about the deer,” he says, nearly ruining the moment.
Watching Stand By Me after so many years I was struck by how much Dreyfuss’s clumsy narration bothered me. When I had first seen the film as a small child, I had been seized by the gut by the colossal force the movie seemed to wield. I had felt as if I was watching the unfurling of time itself. How was I nostalgic for a time I hadn’t yet left? Such was the power of cinema. Yet, returning to the film after so many elapsed years, Stand By Me no longer appears unassailable. Dreyfuss’s narration, among other things, seem poor artistic choices that hamper the really quite beautiful message of the movie. Gordie’s memories of his deceased older brother, Denny, are a tad too rose-colored and cliche. Reiner, too, isn’t all that much of a director and certain scenes could certainly be improved with defter directorial hands. Admittedly, some of the sappier and more ham-fisted stuff is the fault of Stephen King who, for as much as I love him, often makes his themes a little too clear (See: him using the town of Derry as a metaphor in It. Talk about blunt, sheesh!).
So many things came bubbling to the top as bothersome and just plain bad this time around, yet, something else beyond the film’s transgressions struck me: how many things worked like gangbusters, despite all the flaws. River Phoenix’s tearful delivery of “I guess I’m just a pussy, huh?” as he embraces Wil Wheaton around the campfire is enough to make me misty. The slow realization of all the kids in the film that what they’re embarking on is not some summer adventure of rollicking music and stolen smokes, but a toeing at the coiled, sleeping snake of danger and death, not realizing the poison stored dormant in its fangs, is incredibly powerful. The kids play with guns, dodge trains, and eventually see Death Personified in the beaten, cold body of Ray Brower, the poor kid who walked just a little too close to the evening train. Watching the fateful quartet trudge back to Castle Rock after seeing Brower’s body, watching them, heads bowed solemnly, walk through the dusty late summer light, I felt struck by the enormous pathos the film still carries all these years later.
Frequently, nostalgia glazes over the more unfavorable and painful parts of past memories. We think back far more fondly than we should on certain things, forgetting how much of it all went down. This does not matter. What’s most important is that the core of the memory, the thing that caused it to be remembered in the first place, stays intact. Stand By Me is far from a perfect film, but regardless of its flaws, there’s a reason it affected me so deeply when I watched it as a kid. Richard Dreyfuss’s narration may be relentlessly grating, but the yearning, the childhood wish for something greater, still burns strong and bright at the heart of the movie.
As the credits begin to roll, I am made to feel like Gordie in the opening scenes, reminiscent, watching the past roll away as if on a bicycle while I sit and do the only thing I can: remember.
Movies that can do that, they’re worth holding on to.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures