The Academy Awards
shone bright lights in my family's night sky well before 2007, when I stood in a Santa Monica street hugging my black-gowned and borrowed-diamonds daughter Rachel and not
crying, I did not cry, I did not!
as she climbed into the black limo that whisked her and her co-director/producer Heidi to the Oscars where they
would lose Best Documentary to Al Gore
And why yes
: it is
way cool just to be nominated
The Academy Awards had me long before that night.
Way back in America's black & white Cold War daze, my father managed movie theaters on our home turf
of Montana prairie 60-some miles east of the Rockies, 30-some miles south of Canada and a million miles from anything as real as what flickered on the screens of our Roxy Theater (or so I foolishly thought as a child).
Dad proudly did his job and that's what he cared about: doing the job, the business, gauging the inventory of M&M's
in relationship to the gallon jugs of Coke
syrup I'd lug up from the storeroom behind a locked door in the men's room I also janitored.
All that stuff to me was just how
we lived, how
we got money to survive.
I lived flickered on the Roxy's screen.
"Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go to see ... trying to learn to walk like the heroes ... we thought we had to be ..."
Growing up a billion miles away from me on the backstreets
of New Jersey, that's how Bruce Springsteen
, the best American author of my generation, nailed it.
America shimmered through the 20th
century with the power and politics of the movies, just as the world is shimmering into the 21st
century with the power and politics of the Internet.
Not that the movies are "better than ever" or "not so good anymore." Indeed, even though it seemed impossible in media visionary Marshall McLuhan
's heyday, the Internet is redefining, reimagining and reinvigorating movies, getting more of them into our global village faster than Cecil B. DeMille
or F. Scott Fitzgerald
But if the Oscars fill your TV screen on Sunday with their marathon program, think not of the glitter that's parading on stage before a couple billion eyes, some of whom are America's toughest foreign competitors. Think instead of a thousand small theaters or auditoriums in massive multiplexes scattered from New Jersey to Montana. Think of the magic being wrought there that will shape our America to come.
Politics in the movies does not only mean Hollywood stars giving to causes allegedly tilting always to the left. We got Republican President Ronald Reagan
, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
and Congressman Sonny Bono
, along with NRA icon Charlton Heston
, fundamentalist Christian/GOP activist Pat Boone
, and politically moderate mayor Clint Eastwood
from Wall Street-financed
Most movies that set out to be political
or even propagandist fail, or at least don't hold up. With today's eyes, try watching an overly earnest, highly political "The Strawberry Statement
" -- what movie execs thought they could market as, like, the real Sixties, man
Contrast that with "Easy Rider
," (great soundtrack), a movie about existential conflict and the price of being an outlaw. It is a work that -- with allowances for cultural maturation and making art on a stoned shoestring -- still resonates as feeling some kind of true
today, speaking both to the struggles of those yesterdays and the struggles outside our front doors tomorrow.
Because that's what movies are about: feelings. When you go to the silver screen to tell a story, you gotta go for the heart.
Of course, the anti-First Amendment
censors aimed at the movies by shooting us in our heads with paranoia about communism, sex, race and controversial ideas.
As a boy, I watched my father and mother sit at our kitchen table studying expensively printed red, white and blue pamphlets listing sufficiently "American valued" actors, directors, and writers in one group and "subversives" in another. Dad -- a lifelong disciple of Richard Nixon
-- agonized over how blacklisting
would affect ticket sales and
what was the right thing to do.
I was "too young" (they said) to "worry" about such things -- or about the rings of "doomsday
" Minuteman missile sites
planted around our hometown. Their "don't worry" generated an odd vigilance manifested once by a book, another quaint pre-Internet method of artistic and information transmission.
I love crime and spy stories. There was a nook in our county library for "mysteries." On a shelf too high for me to reach stood a book titled "The Novels Of Dashiell Hammett
." Who knew what the heck a "Dashiell Hammett" was? Intriguing, plus the cover looked cool. My older, taller sister Jane reached up and got the book for me to take home.
Where my parents freaked. They didn't care if I read Harold Robbins
or Ian Fleming
(I apologize to every woman I ever met for trying to walk like the heroes of their novels in certain situations). But, said my parents, "You wouldn't like those (Hammett) books" and "they'll bore you." Mom kept moving the Hammett book around our house, disappearing it until, look
: it's due, might as well take back to the library, just as well you never read it.
Because (I later learned) Dashiell Hammett
was an author and well-known "Red sympathizer," blacklisted despite fighting for America in both World Wars. My parents didn't want to corrupt their child and feared letting me create "a permanent record" of being associated with controversial creations.
Now the movies of Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon
" and "The Thin Man
" are American cinema classics and he's lauded for creating a literary genre called hard-boiled prose.
It is no small irony that the first movie I took my son Nathan to -- he was about 3 months old and not appreciative of loud noises with flashing lights in strange rooms – was "The Glass Key
," adapted from a Hammett novel and an influence
on the Coen
brothers (who hope for some "True Grit
" Oscar gold this year). Nathan has no memory of that great Hammett black & white movie of political corruption, murder and love, and my merciful wife, Bonnie
, has blocked the memory of her anger at me for inflicting that "You gotta see it!"
evening on her, her newborn son, and our friend Rich.
And that's it, the reason to care about the Oscars: "You gotta see it!"
Great movies make us feel something
we want to share. That creates a common cultural experience. We get that when we recognize something of worth, some value that rings true despite what censors or the oh so cool
crowd tell us we should like or care about.
Movies -- like literature, music and art – dramatize the why
of politics and society and culture. Movie comedies and dramas help us see the challenges we faced yesterday and fear -- or hope -- we'll encounter tomorrow.
Don't get me wrong. Hollywood is a hungry harlot, a cannibalistic camp town. As a dreamer lucky enough to have his first novel made into a great movie
, then lucky again to work in movies and TV as a screenwriter, I have outrageous horror stories of Hollywood most rational people can't believe.
But that's not what it's all about. Not the horrors or sorrows. Not the deals. Not even the glamour and the glitter and the glory.
The movies are about getting everyone in the audience for just one moment, maybe even for two hours, to feel some wondrous connection with characters on the screen. Then through that, maybe
, feeling commonality with characters sitting three rows behind us in the theater who look like losers or creeps or whatever, but certainly not like us. And yet "they" are like us: we're watching the same movie.
We are all "they."
So we can all find some spark of humanity in some movie sometime somewhere, from New Jersey
to your living room.
And I won't cry, no
I'm not going to cry, when this year I'll see some spark of that humanity, some political and moral integrity expressed through art winning a gold statute called Oscar.
Don't you cry either. Pass the popcorn. And open your heart.