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How the Movies Saved My Life

Seeing the world in black and white (with subtitles).

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 6:40 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Every childhood has its own geography and every child is an explorer, as daring as any Peary or Amundsen or Scott. I was the mildest of children, such a picky eater that my parents called me a "quince" (a fruit sour enough, they insisted, to make your face pucker, as mine did when challenged by any food out of the ordinary). I was neither a daredevil nor a chance-taker, and by my teens scorned myself for being so boringly on the straight and narrow. I never raced a car, or mocked a cop, or lit out for the territories.

Still, by the luck of the draw, as a child of the 1950s, I was plunged into a landscape more exotic than most American kids could then have imagined. It was still devastated by war, populated to a startling extent by present and former enemies, and most amazingly, the Germans, Japanese, Italians, and Russians (not to speak of the French and English) I encountered there were thrillingly alive in a way everything in my life told me we Americans weren't.

Let me explain, geographically speaking and as personally as I can. I grew up at 40 East 58th Street, just off Madison Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan, two blocks from the Plaza Hotel, where Eloise got her hair cut. Apartment 6D—"as in David," we always said.

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My parents moved there in 1946, just after World War II. It was two doors down from the Plaza movie theater, and getting to 6D was an exotic affair. You exited a small, gated elevator into a modest-sized corridor, apartments on either side, only to find yourself on a catwalk in the open air looking down on what might have been the low roofs of Paris. A stroll along that catwalk and a right turn into another corridor got you to our rent-controlled duplex with its living-room skylight under which my mother—"New York's girl caricaturist," as she was known in the gossip columns of the war years—regularly set up her easel. My room was upstairs.

The fifties are now recalled as a golden age when Americans, white ones anyway, burst into the suburbs, while all the consumerist gratifications deferred by the Great Depression and World War II were sated. It was the age of the television set ("Bigger screen… Brighter picture… Better reception") and pop-up toasters, of Frigidaires and freezers big enough "for the whole family" ("holds 525 pounds!"), of "extension" phones, wonder of wonders, ("I just couldn't get along without my kitchen telephone"), and cigarettes so "soothing to the nerves" that doctors and baseball players alike were proud to endorse them.

With good jobs and rising wages in a still war-battered world, the United States stood so much taller than the rest of the planet, manufacturing the large items of the peaceable life (cars, above all) and the advanced weaponry of war, often in the same dominant corporations. It was a world in which Bell Telephone, that purveyor of extension phones, could also run upbeat ads aimed at boys extolling its weapons work. (As one began: "Chip Martin, college reporter, sees a ‘talking brain' for guided missiles... ‘Glad to see you, Chip. Understand you want to find out how our Air Force can guide a warhead a quarter of the way around the world. Well, look here...'")

Inexpensive gas, cheap well-marbled steaks, and reliable warheads that might end life as we knew it—that seems like a reasonable summary of the obvious in American life in those years. And if you were a kid and wanted more, Hollywood was there to deliver: it was a time when, on screen, the Marines always advanced before the movie ended, and the sound of a bugle meant the bluecoats were coming to save the day. It was the moment when, for the first time in history, teenagers had money in their pockets and could begin to spend it on clothes, records, and other entertainment, propelling the country into a new age in which the Mad Men of that era would begin advertising directly to them.

Bad Times in an American Golden Age

I knew that world, of course, even if our little "icebox," which iced over easily, was no Frigidaire. Living in the middle of Manhattan, I could catch the all-American-ness of life by taking a three-block walk to the RKO 58th Street movie theater at the corner of Third Avenue where, popcorn in hand, I'd settle in for a double-feature version of the world as it was supposed to be.

There, too, I could regularly see my father's war. Like so many of those we now call "the greatest generation," he was silent on the subject of his war experience (except for rare rants about "war profiteers" and "the Japs"), but that mattered little. After all, what did he have to say when the movies taught me everything I needed to know about what he had done in his war?

Because the then-liberal rag the New York Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings (being broadcast live on ABC), we got a TV for the first time in April 1954. Of course, the sitcoms I was allowed to watch, like Hollywood's war films, Westerns, and comedies, had a remarkable tendency to end tidily and on an upbeat note. Unlike movies about my father's war, however, I had something to compare those sitcoms to and, much as I loved Father Knows Best, it bore not the slightest resemblance to anything my hard-pressed mother, angry father, and I were living out. In it, I could find no hint of the messy psychic geography of my own childhood.

For my nuclear family in those first years of the nuclear age, it was bad times all the way. In the middle years of the decade, my father, a salesman, was out of work and drinking heavily; my mother brought home "the bacon" (really, that's the way they spoke about it then), which—I have her account book from those years—was excessively lean. They were struggling to keep up the appearance of a middle-class life while falling ever more deeply into debt. The fights about "Tommy's doctor bill" or "Tommy's school bill" began as soon as they thought I was asleep.

Among my most vivid memories was creeping out into the light of the hall, propping myself up by the stairs and listening, mesmerized, as my parents went at it below with startling verbal violence. Think of that as my first perch as a future writer.

Like most kids in most places, I assumed then that my life, including such eternally angry nights, was the way it was for everyone. My problems, as I saw it, didn't actually begin until I stepped out onto 58th Street, where, as far as I could tell, a landscape strangely empty of interest stretched as far as the eye could see.

If America then sat atop the world, triumphant and alone, the blandness that aloneness bred, a kind of unnaturally fearful uniformity of everything, is difficult today to conjure up or even describe. At the time, though, I hardly understood why the world I was being promised struck me as so dull. I thought it was me. And above all, I didn't have a clue when or how this would end and life, whatever that was, would begin.

Feeling "Foreign" in Fifties America

Fortunately for me, geography came to my rescue. My street, was—no hyperbole here—unique at that moment. You could have traveled a fair distance in 1950s America, hundreds or possibly thousands of miles, without stumbling upon a movie house dedicated to "foreign films," and yet between Sixth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, in fewer than three and a half city blocks, I had three of them—the Paris just west of Fifth Avenue, the Plaza by my house, and between Park and Lexington, the Fine Arts.

You would no more have wondered about why they were clustered there than why your parents duked it out each night. And yet how strange that was in a still remarkably white bread and parochial American world. Immigration, remember, had largely been shut down by act of Congress in 1924 (see, for example, the Asian Exclusion Act) and America's doors didn't begin to open again until the early 1950s. In a time when you can get bagels in El Paso and Thai, Japanese, or Mexican food in Anytown, USA, it's hard to remember just how rare the "foreign" in "foreign films" once was. In that earlier era of American fear and hysteria, that word and the dreaded phrase "Communist influence" were linked.

And so, to enter the darkness of one of those theaters and be suddenly transported elsewhere on Earth, to consort with the enemy and immerse yourself in lives that couldn't have seemed more alien (or attractive), under more empathetic circumstances—well, that was not a common experience. Think of those movie houses not simply as one confused and unhappy teenage boy's escape hatch from the world, but as Star Trekian-style wormholes into previously unsuspected parallel universes that happened to exist on planet Earth.

By the time I was thirteen, the manager of the Plaza had taken a shine to me and was letting me into any movie I cared to see. A Taste of Honey (a coming-of-age story about a working-class English girl—Rita Tushingham with her soulful eyes—impregnated by a black sailor and cared for by a gay man), Alan Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (a film of unparalleled murkiness, notable for a matchstick game the unnamed characters play that caused a minor cocktail party craze in its day), Billy Liar (a chance to fall in love with the young Julie Christie as a free spirit), Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (a medieval tale of rape and revenge)—it didn't matter. I seldom had the slightest idea what I was walking into, and in that Internet-less world there was no obvious place to find out, nor was there anyone to guide me through those films or tell me what I should think, which couldn't have been more disorienting or glorious.

On any afternoon I might suddenly be French or Russian or—weirdest of all for a Jewish kid living in New York City—German. Each film was a shock all its own, a deep dive into some previously unimagined world. If I needed confirmation that these movies were from another universe, it was enough that, in an era of glorious Technicolor, they were still obdurately and inexplicably black and white, every one of them. What more evidence did I need that foreigners inhabited another planet?

The actors in those films, unlike Hollywood's, existed on a remarkably human scale. Sometimes, they even fought as fiercely and messily as my parents and they had genuinely bad times, worse than anything I had yet imagined. Above all—a particularly un-American trait in the movies then—everything did not always end for the best.

In fact, however puzzlingly, sometimes those films didn't seem to end at all, at least not in the way I then understood endings. As in the last frozen, agonizing, ecstatic image of a boy's face in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (which I didn't see until college), it was easy to imagine that almost anything might happen within moments of such "endings," that life would go on—which was, for me, completely unexpected at the movies.

And don't forget that these films made you work. Except for the British movies, there were always subtitles, exotic in themselves, which made them seem like so many illustrated novels. And here was the strangest thing: that black-and-white world you had to read to decipher had an uncanny ability to suck the color out of Manhattan.

And those films offered history lessons capable of turning what I thought I knew upside down. In my American world, for instance, the atomic bomb was everywhere, just not in clearly recognizable form. If you went to the RKO to catch Them! or This Island Earth, for instance, you could see the bomb and its effects, after a fashion, via fantasies about radioactive mutant monsters and alien superweapons. Still, you could grow up in 1950s America, as I did, without ever learning much or seeing a thing about what two actual atomic bombs had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki—unless, that is, your local movie theater happened to show Alain Resnais's 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour (scripted by the novelist Marguerite Duras).

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