I wonder, sometimes, what difference it would have made if, in my younger years I had gotten the foundation of my education in the art of film solely by renting movies from a video store, then bringing them home to watch, rather than watching them in a theater. I was a shy kid, and if I had ever been asked to evaluate my overall personality, the last word I would have used to describe myself would be “brave.” Yet my curiosity drove me to go out of the house at every opportunity to see what was out there; and the first thing I remember that really had me hopping on the bus at the corner of Mt. Pleasant and Irving—or else walking down Columbia Road and heading south until I got to the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 21st Street—were the movies. And that corner of DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood was where the Circle Theater stood.
One of the first movies I remember seeing there was Louis Malle’s documentary about India called L’Inde Fantome (1969). I was around twelve or thirteen and, after reading about it in the post, I knew it was something I just had to see. It was there, or at the Inner Circle next door, where I saw my first Ingmar Bergman films—stuff like Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, and Persona (one of the first films I ever saw that really blew me away). It was also here where I saw another of my earliest favorites, Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The Four Hundred Blows). But it wasn’t just foreign, “art” films I saw there. I also watched stuff like Goodbye Columbus, the movie—based on the Philip Roth novella—that made Ali MacGraw a star; Carl Reiner’s farce Where’s Poppa, which in one of the Circle’s classic oddball pairings was part of a double feature with Midnight Cowboy; and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Paul Mazursky’s comedy about wife swapping which I liked and remembered mostly because it ended with Jackie DeShannon singing “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” one of my favorite songs from the 60s.
And the thing was, watching a movie there at the Circle, I felt just as safe as I would have were I watching these films at home. Yes, there were often homeless people slumped and napping in their seats–with admission being one dollar during the day, it was a cheap place to get some rest and, in the summer, free air conditioning. For me, though, that was one of the good things about it. Now and then I’d run into some of the homeless people I knew there, and it was a kick to think I might be enjoying the same movies they were.
Although I enjoyed watching films with friends, there was still nothing like watching them by myself in a theater filled with strangers. There was nothing like that sense of mystery. And although I felt comfortable there, I never felt too comfortable, and even if a film was somewhat on the boring side—The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which I actually saw at the Biograph, was, despite the magnificent music of Johann Sebastian Bach, a bit tedious—I never fell asleep. The first time I ever fell asleep at the movies was when I saw the second of the Lord of the Rings movies with Heather. Being with Heather, I was comfortable—too comfortable—and, not caring all that much about the Hobbits and Middle-Earth and all that, I fell asleep. But it was a good sleep, and when I woke up with the movie almost over I felt well rested.
Nowadays, though—after spending my younger years immersed in film—I have almost no idea of what going on in the world of cinema. After Maggie was born, and then Julien, the opportunity to see anything other than children’s films (even at home) nearly vanished. The last grown-up film Heather and I got to see in a theater, if I remember correctly, was Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth. As for watching a grown-up film at home, we don’t get to do that very often either, the last one I remember watching being Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. (a production of McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the way, is the last grown-up play I remember seeing). Still, here and there, I get to do both; and that night a couple of years ago when I happened upon Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows on some cable film channel and found myself watching the entire film with Maggie—who, to my surprise was totally entranced by it—was, for me, one of those beautiful parental moments. My youth—which each day seems to recede further and further into some soon-to-be-forgotten past—somehow crossed paths with Maggie’s as together we watched this Truffaut film that moved me so many years ago. And, from her reaction to it, it looked like Maggie was just as moved as I was.
This isn’t to say there aren’t days when it all seems so hard. Days when I think about Dennis Hopper as Ripley in Wim Wender’s Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend) saying, “A little older, a little more confused.” That’s another film I saw by myself, at the Inner Circle. It’s a film which one day, when she’s old enough, I’d like to watch with Maggie. As for that confusion, well, sometimes I think that confusion is just wisdom in its rawest form. Confusion is like that gas out of which stars are born. So often it’s the people who are totally convinced they know what’s going on who are truly clueless.
This is a photograph taken at the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm in Paradise Township, just outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I were on our way to the exit, after having spent the better part of an afternoon there, when I spotted this man taking a picture of his wife (or girlfriend) as she balanced on top of one of the rails of the Strasburg railroad. But more than taking a photograph, he seems to simply be admiring her and meditating upon the angle and good fortune of his connection to her. And, perhaps—as all decent men and women do from time to time—contemplating the meaning of the universe.