Ever want to warn somebody in a movie? I mean warn the character, like Wendy in The Shining about to be chopped by her husband? Or Pam and friends in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who should definitely have aborted the trip to the farmstead after picking up a psychotic hitchhiker. You’re the audience, munching nervously away on popcorn grannies; you can only watch while the hapless victim ends up in, say, a garbage disposal.
This happens to me: I’m super-sensitive to movie character vulnerability. In Jaws, I wanted to warn Chrissa not to go for that moonlight swim. She did, of course, so I busied myself behind the popcorn warmer, while she was devoured by the inevitable white shark (one of Spielberg’s faulty mechanical models, of course, though it seemed real enough to me).
I’d been watching from my perch at the concession stand in the lobby of the St. George, a 2,672-seat movie palace in Staten Island, that a group of us were busting our chops to run in 1976. We showed a lot of duck-under-your-seat movies in our theater year: the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw, but also The Exorcist. There was no character to warn in that movie, since the priest, played by Max Von Sydow, voluntarily jumps out the window, taking the demon with him. Is it worse to have nobody to warn?
In my childhood, at Cincinnati’s Mt. Lookout Theatre, a small Deco-themed house I frequented in third and fourth grades, I wanted to warn dozens of people about the flying saucers that eventually sliced through the Capitol dome in Washington D.C. (Right now it’s the senators and congresspeople I want to warn, and not about saucers...). Earth finally triumphed over the imagined aliens in Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, but my impulse to duck under the seat remained.
I suppose it’s the Pandemic that’s bringing these movie crisis moments to the small cinema of my pre-frontal cortex. I’ve been having what I call “Covid dreams” lately. I’m in a theater, all the seats full. Nobody’s wearing a mask. That used to be a joyous thing, a packed theater (we only packed the St. George once); but it just doesn’t feel normal anymore. This sense of wrongness is so all-pervading, that when I watch a movie or show that features the old ways — people clustered happily in a dark bar, or high-fiving each other on some playground, or, God forbid, making love, I get that uneasy feeling. If they’re riding cheek-to-jowl on a crowded train, or tackling each other in football, I want to scream, “keep apart! Six feet at least!!!”
Will there be Covid movies when this is all over? Covid novels? Shakespeare lived through several plagues, but set no plays in plague time, though he used the pestilence metaphorically, or as a plot-hinge (Romeo and Juliet). It may be enough simply to have survived Covid. My favorite thing to watch recently on Brit Box is the old BBC series, Foyle’s War. Foyle and his buds are all chummed up together having a double malt whisky in a pub or sitting around the detective’s desk fingering the murder weapon; or they’re right next to each other in that gorgeous car, a highly-polished 1938 Wolseley. They’re not wearing masks, of course, but somehow it’s alright, because, perhaps, the enemy is other than disease. What they’re fighting is beyond even the Germans, it’s human greed, against a backdrop of unexploded bombs and rickety air-raid shelters. People are still murdering each other or stealing each other's rations and selling them on the black market, but Foyle is calm; he straightens it all out somehow, and he’s not even wearing a mask...
If we all have to be wearing one, I long for the other kind... Not the mask I wear to the farmer’s market, that covers my nose and mouth, and makes it really challenging to breathe, but the kind Superman, Batman, the Lone Ranger, or even long-ago Zorro are wearing. They’re hiding their identities against the forces of greed and evil. They’re sexy.
Who was that masked man? Pass the popcorn!
1. We ran a little-known flick at the St. George, that actually included a warning to one or more of its characters in the title: Don’t Open the Window. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3NDBSh-gdw] I read through the plot summary recently, looking for some evidence of a window, but never found one. Who knows? The film had a strange career, traveling under several aliases: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. It’s a cult film for zombie flick fans.
2. Who wears a mask? Besides the aforementioned heroes, there are: Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, the Phantom of the Opera, etc. In fact, you can buy a Lecter Covid mask, if you want to make some kind of statement. And, BTW, Leatherface (actor Dan Yeager), from Texas Chainsaw, encourages you to wear yours (not his). Here’s his take: People bitching it’s hard to breathe in a mask. Try chasing some punk who comes on your property while breathing chainsaw smoke and with a bad leg, all while wearing a mask and a leather apron. I’ll grant you you’re not going to be able to scale any chainlink fences, but that’s why you have a chainsaw. It ain’t easy, but you’re no p---y. Wear your mask, killer.
Hey Leatherface: you talkin' to me?