The Wicked Witch of the West was consummate evil; her melting, in The Wizard of Oz, should have given me some comfort, but I couldn’t watch that happen any more than I could look on Ahab’s corpse tied to the Whale in Moby Dick. These cinematic traumas happened in the movie palaces and domed stadium theaters of my Cincinnati childhood. Movies that contain horror moments are, like roller coasters, more attractive than repulsive, and the theaters that contained these movies involved another deeper level of fantasy, which is why, eventually, I was drawn to the project of running a movie palace, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, where I’d come to live by 1976. Our St. George had its horror moments too.
I was grown up by then, but when Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) came on-screen in our magic cave of a palace, my feet went off the floor. I didn’t watch all of this movie, partly because I needed to spend time sitting in my office trying to figure out another horror, how to balance the books, and come up with the staggering sum necessary to get our hands on the next picture. But who am I fooling? When he hangs the girl on the meathook, I’m up the aisle and out of there.
The Exorcist, which I’d seen for the first time two years before, was just as scary, requiring me both to cover my eyes and tuck my feet under me. I didn’t stay for the whole movie, but couldn’t claim it was because we were running out of cash. We actually sold out! For several nights the house was packed with maniacs all hiding their eyes. Were they picking their feet up? Whether or not that’s just my peculiar reaction, it would have been a smart strategy, in a theater where spilled soda and popcorn fed an ample population of mice who made bold each night after everybody left. Speaking of Exorcist, when my Yoga instructor encourages me, as she did last week, to turn my neck just a little further and look backwards, I think of Linda Blair; but my feet are firmly on the floor, I’m happy to say.
There were other movies in our theater year I didn’t bother to sit down for. The Omen? I stood in the doorway with a small popcorn, and Jaws? I watched it from the concession stand, ducking my head into the popcorn popper to shut out the screams of that solitary swimmer.
Movies, I believe, were and still are, the core of what we now call virtual reality. We’re used to movies, but they’re still, as they always were, collective dreams — which, if you ever watched a VR headset user stumble around in ecstasy or horror might make you long for a theaterful of fellow dreamers. I’d like to let Fellini weigh in on this subject:
Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.
"A language made of image.” I like that. When I hide from the image by shielding my eyes or lifting my feet up, I’m responding with my whole body, but I can see my body while I’m responding.
Of course there are “VR” movies, but isn’t that a redundancy?
Long before I was around — in 1895, when cinema was in its infancy — legend has it that the Lumiere brothers presented a fifty-second short film (L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat) of a train moving towards the camera as it arrives in a station, which, it is said, caused the as-yet-ignorant-of-cinema audience to bolt from the theater in panic. The story of the audience’s reaction is apparently a fiction, but what does it matter? What does it say of our own sense of wonder at watching, that we like to think they ran away?
Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, was badly burned on both her face and hands during the famous “melting” scene. She knew better than to sue, and lose the possibility of future roles in movies, but from that point onward, a clause in her contract insisted she would no longer work with or near pyrotechnics. These days, the whole thing would have been portrayed via special effects, which is to say, virtually.