Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Mad Hermit Remembers the Reel Things

For My Grandson, Hunter Michael Guire, now being graduated from High School (Home School), and working as a theater usher in a very different era. The Mad Hermit continues his story.

On the plane returning from Oman and my defunct island hermitage, I watched a movie and mused. The movie brought up the smell of popcorn, and suddenly I was standing in the popcorn roo
m with my Dad in the early 1950’s. The smell of popcorn was rich with the odor of hydrogenated coconut oil, now on the forbidden list in the politically and dietetically correct days of the 21st century, a time I had never guessed could exist back then.

Then, when I walked to school or carried the newspapers, I would often try to figure out if I could live until the year 2000. Nah, I would always conclude, not possible. My Dad was born in 1903, so he was still in his early 50’s then. So, how could I, Kenny Craven, make it to 2000? Born in 1938, I would be 62, ancient. It wasn’t the arithmetic so much as imagining myself as an old man, like the old winos that walked the street below the popcorn room. “Jake legs,” Dad said of their funny walk, “from drinking cheap wine.” Nevertheless, he would toss dimes through the exhaust fan, and laugh when a wino saw money fall from the sky. “They get seven, they can get a bottle of wine from the liquor store.” Both of us tossed kernels of popcorn the fan to watch the pigeons scrambling for it on the street below. This memory came back to this old Hermit fresh, like the smell of popcorn. I didn’t know then that Dad would die at the age of 55. Nor did I understand that not only would I achieve ancient years, but that I would enter, in a series of scudding shocks, a strange time called the Post-Modernist, Post-Christian Era.

The popcorn job was an extra one his Dad had taken on at the movie theater where he was a projectionist. In that time, all the popcorn was popped at night and stored in five gallon cans. It was usually one to three days old before it made it to the customer. When it was poured into the glass frame of the concession stand and heated up, customers would say it was the best popcorn ever, much better than fresh popped. It was.

After Dad finished the last show, especially on weekends when big movies were on the bill for the next day (Alan Ladd held the popcorn sales record, even passing up John Wayne and Clark Gable), I would wait for him in the popcorn room backstage. Originally designed as a dressing room for stage plays like Tobacco Road, the room had been converted into a popcorn production factory. Another backstage room held thousands of pounds of South American hybrid popcorn in fifty pound bags and tons of congealed coconut oil, which had to be melted in a large cauldron that held fifty pounds of the stuff. Two popcorn kettles with revolving agitators popped a can of popcorn each, thirty-three cans, or 165 gallons of popcorn an hour. Each kettle load poured into “shakers,” which allowed the unpopped kernels to be shaken into refuse trays underneath. Once we finished shaking, we carried the tray and dumped it down a large metal funnel, where the popcorn fell into a can waiting underneath. In three and a half hours, we filled some 110 cans, all neatly stacked and ready for hauling. After a can was loaded, we reloaded the kettle. A quart of popcorn kernels, a handful of salt, and a half-pint of coconut oil, and a new batch was soon on its way, while the other kettle was just finishing. A real production line, which frequently occasioned stories of Henry Ford from Dad, who lived in awe of the technical marvels of his time.

I loaded sixteen cans on a wooden hand cart with wheels (called “the truck”) and hauled them either to a storage room near the Granada Theater concession stand or to a similar room a block down the street at the company’s other theater, the State, where Class B movies, endless westerns, and re-runs dominated. I loved walking that rattling thing down the street: important me, on a mission. On a busy Sunday, both theaters would start running out of popcorn in the early afternoon and my Dad and I would be back in the popcorn room. I gobbled popcorn, smelled popcorn, hauled popcorn, and contrary to the food gurus of the present time, stayed small and skinny. When one of the “colored” janitors went on vacation, I substituted, and after the last movie ended at 11, I swept tons of popcorn and cardboard popcorn boxes into huge barrels for hauling to the city dump where thousands of birds would peck at the kernels. We fed the multitudes and the birds of the air.

I had the feeling that I lived in a kind of mystery of which ordinary boys had no notion. Dad and I popped the popcorn, sometimes until three in the morning, and then walked home through the cool or cold Appalachian night, listening to the never-ending sounds of the railroad, the hissing of steam, the clanking of coal cars being assembled into a train, the long steam whistles up and down the valley.

Sounds: after smells, the next part of the mystery. In Walden, Thoreau harkened to the sounds of the forest and the pond, but he also listened for the trains that ran past one end of the pond. Now that I grow increasingly deaf, this old Hermit misses the sounds of the world, even as he jokes that he is glad he cannot hear annoying sermons or speeches or rap music. Thoreau knew we were sensual beings who first knew the mystery of the world through smells, sounds, sights, and touch. Standing next the popcorn kettles, I warmed to the rat-a-tat popping of the corn, one kettle machine gunning to the max while the next waited to begin with single-shot detonations. Quiet in their metal cans, the popcorn slept until shoveled into boxes, and soon hundreds of people would be sitting in the theater munching away and waiting for the sights and sounds of movies.

At certain times, when the sound track went soft, what could be heard was the clicking of the sprocket wheel from the projection booth at the back, which sat up high, above the colored section, and its carbon-arc beam of light poured forth from one of two small, square windows, and through them the constant chatter of the sprocket wheels ratcheting down the 35 mm film, one frame at a time. These formed the metallic background of the motion picture mystery.
Blissfully unaware that the screen where they were watching the movie was totally black every 1/48 second, the audience munched their popcorn and candy bars and beheld the story they came for, sometimes with their own sounds of hah! And ah! And ooooh! In those days there were “shorts” that asked the audience to sing along as the bouncing ball marked the lyrics, which they did, belting out “Come along with me Lucille,” “Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde,” or “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,” with unabashed gusto. Or they laughed, and sometimes I could see and hear real sobbing, maybe in a war movie or Gone with the Wind. (not likely in the 21st century, but then people were more easily given to genuine emotion; now they seem to live in hard, coruscated shells impervious to joy, and “ooh” is reserved for images of chainsaws cutting into bodies).

I knew about the screen being totally black because my father was the movie Wizard, and he inculcated in me a sense of wonder at the magic of the movies. Somehow our popping popcorn and watching the movies—and just as important, watching the people watch the movies—gave us an extra dimension, as if we were Olympic gods looking down on it all, as Shakespeare clearly enjoyed looking down on the audience watching Elizabethan plays. Mostly my Dad and I shared all this silently, as part of our being father and son, but occasionally we remarked on this or that. And yes, when you watch the same movie a dozen times, you have favorite scenes, and as I carried emergency cans of corn out to the mezzanine, I would pause in the dark and not so much to watch the scene again, but more important, to watch a different audience reacting to the same scene.

I don’t know what kind of voyeurism this is or if it has been classified, but it is also possible to step quietly behind the big movie screen. Those screens are not like white sheets, they have millions of holes in them, which the light comes through. Standing in the dark, I could hold out my arm and see movie images floating across. And standing behind the screen and the big speakers made it possible to enjoy a movie in yet another way. I could see the picture on the screen from behind, hear the characters talking as if in an echo chamber, and I could see the first ten or so rows of the audience as well. Silence, darkness, secrecy—those aspects of movies defined part of my being. And I was alone, enjoying something none of my friends could ever know by experiencing the mystery of the movie theatre (in West Virginia, we never said “cinema,” and most people called it the “pitcher show”) from a secret angle. In all the old stories from ancient cultures, secrecy is the guardian of mystery. Today, the Hermit thought, in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, in the confession prayer we promise not to reveal the secret of the Eucharist to non-Christians.

It was very, very rare in those days for a movie to come to town that we were not allowed to see. Father Burke (RIP) kept us aware of the Legion of Decency ratings that appeared weekly in Our Sunday Visitor, our major print link with the Church Universal, and we all dutifully stood in church to take the Legion of Decency Pledge. Remember, in those days it was a shock to audiences when Clark Gable said, “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The worst moment came when a torrid and buxom actress named Jane Russell appeared in a movie called The Outlaw, in which someone ripped her dress and one breast was exposed for a gasping millisecond. That one earned Father Burke’s jeremiad that ended, “any man who respects his wife, his mother, or his daughter cannot see this film without risking his soul to hell fire.” A Friday night boxing fan, Father Burke never went to movies, but at my Dad’s urging, slipped into the colored section to roar laughing at John Ford’s The Quiet Man when John Wayne beat the stuffing out of his father-in-law.

Soon it was not only sexy images that were disturbing, but content and message. Otto Preminger produced a movie called The Moon is Blue, which was whispered about. I was not allowed to see that one, but I never could figure out why. And I began to hear my Mom and her friends speak in hushed tones of scandals, actresses getting divorced (shocking!), like Ingmar Bergman. But never, by the way, of anything “gay,” not even a hint. I was becoming aware that the movies, once a pure delight of heroes honored and villains crushed, were becoming a danger zone, and that we Catholics were somehow separate from the rest of society. About that time I was graduated from Sacred Heart school and had to go to the public high school, where one shock followed another and my peers laughed at my tender sensibilities about sex.

But the mystery of the movies was not altogether gone. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the mystery of the big carbon-arc 35mm machines: they formed the backdrop for my growing up in the movie theater with my Dad, working with him, walking with him, laughing with him, and sensing when he was sad or scared about money and politics. He was the president of his Union Local of the IATSE—the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, one of the unions that made up the AFL-CIO, in days when unions really worked for people. Any time you watch a movie, any movie, you can see the IATSE Logo in the credits. His identity as a union man and a Democrat (before the Democrat Party became socialist baby-killers and perverts) kept me aware at all times that we were different, under suspicion and fire from the Republican businessmen who ran our town, and also part of something rather grand. When stage shows or operas or the “Ice-capades “ came to town, they snubbed the local electricians and called for union stagehands. I could tell that my Dad beamed quietly with pride when that happened. That the Catholic Church supported the right to unionize deeply impressed him. He was raised as a Methodist but became a Catholic a few years before he died.

All that gave my childhood and youth a different dimension and permanently affected my life and, I am sure, my imagination. As a theater usher through most of high school and college, I must have watched thousands of hours of movies of every kind. Several times in my life I have become bloated with movies, and true to my addictive personality, swore off, sometimes for several years.

The carbon-arc projectors emitted a slightly blue haze in the projection room and made my Dad cough constantly. He was a heavy smoker, yes, but he was also aware something was wrong in the hot booth where he spent thousands of hours. Many times he begged the management to install an exhaust fan to carry out the millions of tiny carbon particles that seeped into his lungs. True capitalist Republicans, they always refused. Doctors diagnosed him repeatedly as afflicted with chronic bronchitis. Finally, struggling to breathe, he was moved to the University of Virginia where he was pronounced the worst case of emphysema they had ever seen., and where he died gasping for breath. The day before the ambulance took him away, he raised himself on one elbow and rasped, “what’s playing?” I answered, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” He smiled and slept, perhaps dreaming of colorful leprechauns.

Two things dominated my childhood and youth: the traditional Catholic Mass and my life in it as an acolyte, and the movie world my Dad and I lived in. From his death on, the two worlds grew more and more apart until they have become two planets. The traditional Catholic Mass is now a rarity, hidden in small parishes in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods when one can find it. And the movie world--?

Well, it’s not difficult for sane people to measure the distance to this alien planet, because it is the one we inhabit, ourselves the aliens, with most people unaware of how completely the culture of death , drugs, and demons enters into virtually every story on the cinema or TV screen. The movies permanently affected my life and, I am sure, for both good and ill, my imagination. As a theater usher through most of high school and college, I must have watched thousands of hours of movies of every kind. Several times in my life I have become bloated and disgusted with movies, and true to my addictive personality, swore off completely, sometimes for years. I confess I always come back for this or that flick, hopeful that it will be at least acceptable. I am rarely pleased. The culture that produces the movies is sick, and even when people imagine they are seeing an acceptable movie, they usually miss its underlying assumptions, just as they miss the silent and seductive ambiance of relativism in the public schools. For what it’s worth, I list some of my own favorite movies below.

In the days of my Dad and me and the movies, audiences often applauded really good movies. When was the last time you did?

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Mission
Lawrence of Arabia
Apocalypse Now (original version)
High Noon
African Queen
The Quiet Man
A Man for All Seasons
The Shawshank Redemption
The Family Man
A Bridge Too Far
The Great Escape
On the Waterfront
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Exorcist
The Passion of the Christ
Paths of Glory
Schindler’s List
Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
Rain Man
All Quite on the Western Front
Song of Bernadette
Hotel Rwanda
Stalag 17
To Kill a Mockingbird
Das Boot
Ben Hur
The Third Man
Gran Torino
Cool Hand Luke
Groundhog Day
The Fugitive
Bridge on the River Kwai
The Bicycle Thief
The Kite Runner
Singing in the Rain
No Country for Old Men
The Road
Grapes of Wrath
Twelve Angry Men
Life is Beautiful
Enemy at the Gates
Sophy’s Choice

© Copyright R. Kenton Craven June 2013