Monday, February 03, 2020

encore! the film that defines me

"This film is alive!" Henry Miller once said, "And it speaks to me."

Movies have many voices. Some simply entertain us; others instruct. A few make us feel alive, and even fewer influence our behavior and decisions.

The ones that grip us in a personal way are the truly special movies in our lives. They have the awesome ability to get us to look inside ourselves and to pursue dreams that we otherwise might never consider.

Growing up, we all invariably have used film as a point of reference, a learning tool, an example. We would gulp down our One-a-Day vitamins, check our PF Flyers to make sure that they were double-knotted and then, almost routinely, make a beeline for the neighborhood Bijou where we would lose ourselves in make-believe, fantasies, daydreams and movies. Movies - the word itself sparkles with glitter.
Movies. The special ones stay with us forever. It takes little mental coaxing for me to remember those personal film arousals that have overwhelmed my life. And I've a suspicion that if I were to connect these movies - the way one connects dots - I'd come up with an image that looks, well, very much like me.

Which brings me to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," my film. A reference to it recently by TCM's Ben Mankiewicz jogged my memory. Turns out, "The Apartment" is not exclusively mine. Ben invoked it when he referred to it in one of his introductions as the all-time favorite of his Turner Classic Movies colleague Alicia Malone.

Yes, great minds do think alike.

Not surprisingly, each of us could be charted by the movies that have guided us, movies we love. As a society, that chart would include such widespread titles as "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," seminal movie experiences that continue to have an impact on the masses. No question about it.

Then, there is something like more personal, such as"The Apartment."

The beauty of movies of this kind is that they work on us more intimately, directly on our senses. They get us alone in the dark and then, while we're isolated and diverted and vulnerable, they whisper to us, subliminally instructing us in the ways of life. And, yes, sometimes they lie to us.

They may not always change our lives in conspicuous ways, inspiring us to pick up and move away, get married or have a baby (although some can). What the best of them do is to, quite simply, put us in contact with ourselves.
The movies that are special to us - and you know which ones are your favorites - knock us out with some truth or some indication of what can be. We never do quite get our balance back. We leave the theater feeling dazed, irritated, excited, exhilarated and eager to do something, anything.

In my case, movies are more than a profession or even an avocation. I will be frank: They have been my life, I dream about them, the way I do about people. They are my world and it's a wondrous place. But one has to be careful because when one lives in a world of movies, one risks living in a place that's close to, well, nowhere.

So, how did I end up in this place?
It started innocently enough. I used movies initially as an escape, then as a learning tool, looking for examples, for role models, for someone with whom I could connect.

Not easy. I'd sit there in awe of John Wayne, for example - with his cunning and macho prowess, such as when he rescued a teenage Natalie Wood in John Ford’s "The Searchers," knowing that I could never measure up. Never.

It' difficult to feel much kinship with the men I saw on screen, but I tried. The image of Wayne swooping down and scooping up Natalie Wood has a strong, masculine force that is anything but absurd to a little boy.

But then, I saw a movie that convinced me that, somehow, my life could be emotionally mixed up with movies. When I first saw it, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment" created a longing so ardent that I thought my chest and head would implode.

It was the summer of 1960. I remember little else about that summer or that year, for that matter, except that I loved "The Apartment" and that I related to its star, Jack Lemmon, in the most complete, complicated way possible. A point of reference at last. A role model.

Hearing Ben Mankiewicz reference Alicia Malone compelled me to dig out this old essay, which originally was published August 2, 2006, my second piece for The Passionate Moviegoer. I remember having written that with such dubious assets as his slight build, sagging shoulders, slouching posture and wide-open face filled with basset-hound anxiety, Jack Lemmon filled me with wonder for someone who seemed so much like me - or so I liked to think.
Jack Lemmon was Mr. Joe Average, a guy like a lot of other guys, only with a quizzical alertness and high-strung energy. As Saturday Review aptly put it in its uncredited review of Richard Murphy’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1961), Lemmon was "the perfect personification of all harassed mankind - the outranked, outnumbered, out-manipulated little fellow with sound instincts and bad judgment. He is the one who is always taken advantage of. And if, in the end, he emerges triumphant, it's because of a basic decency rather than superior cunning or sudden inspiration."
Over the years, I've watched my 16mm print of "The Apartment" at least 50 times, and easily many more times on home entertainment, but I still remember the first time: I was with some Catholic-school friends, kids who tested their tonsils and tangled diction on the screen by shouting obscene words through their cupped hands. We told our parents that we'd be seeing "The Story of Ruth," a Biblical epic released the same summer as "The Apartment." (Blasphemy, I know.)

They goofed off, but I watched. “The Apartment” is the first film that I actually studied, reading between the lines and noting techniques. In my case, I couldn't get enough of  "The Story of Ruth." While my friends moved on, "The Story of Ruth" became my go-to movie that summer. It's like I had invented binge-watching.

I’ve seen a lot of films, and my list of favorites keeps changing, but “The Apartment” – the story of an ambitious office worker (Lemmon) who climbs the corporate ladder by “lending” his apartment to his philandering bosses before getting his priorities straight – has been resistant to any upward or downward revision in my mind. It's been a constant -  the test, I guess, of a truly great personal film.
Few movies, however, have the kind of impact on our lives that “The Apartment” has had on mine. But the infrequent great ones do come along from time to time, films that restore our belief in possibilities and that remain our points of reference throughout our lives.

These movies are like dreams that live on. Each movie, each celluloid dream, becomes a part of our mental scrapbooks. I know that I’ve lingered over movies and movie scenes the way some people reminisce over snapshots of that wonderful vacation in Cape Cod. “The Apartment,” for example, has been carried around inside me ever since that first viewing. It’s familiar and comforting, like an old easy chair that’s been lugged to each new place in which I’ve lived – to remind me of where I’ve been and where I will continue to go.
That movie is like a ribbon, a thread, that has run through my life and I can always go back to it. And, like me, throughout the years, it has evolved and changed. It hasn’t remained the same and, for some reason, I find that reassuring.

I still quote lines of the Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond dialogue from the movie – such as David Lewis' casual shrug, “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise,” or Lemmon's observation to his dream girl in the film, Shirley MacLaine, as they are about to enjoy a spaghetti dinner on Christmas day: “It’s a wonderful thing – dinner for two.” Shirley MacLaine. Yes, she was my dream, too.

Inevitably, I found myself discreetly consulting “The Apartment” as a way of getting through life. A situation would be confronted by speculating how C.C. Baxter, Lemmon’s character in the film, might handle it. I actually thought I’d grow up to be Jack Lemmon or, at least, C.C. Baxter.

Silly right? I was a kid.

Up until that time, I spent endless, sleepless nights as that kid wondering if I’d grow up to look like Jack Lemmon (I didn’t) or if I’d join the Navy the way he did in John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy's “Mr. Roberts” (again, I didn’t) or work for an insurance company the way he did in “The Apartment” (ditto) or if I’d marry MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik (no way). These were actual, recurring dreams. No exaggeration.

Of course, I wasn’t Jack Lemmon and my life that followed wasn’t at all like the one he lived in “The Apartment.” And with this, I realized that movies have the ability to hit us in more ways, and on more levels, than we can ever appreciate.

They are transporting and make us believe.

Ever since I first saw “The Apartment,” my life has been wrapped up, irrevocably, in movies, so much so that, for me, film has evolved into a pop psychology. Film became a part of something larger in my life. Movies and events in my world have tended to blend together.

Along the way, a kid no more, I learned to separate fantasy from reality, to realize that only a few of my movie-fed dreams will materialize. And I’ve also accepted the realization that many of these dreams may fall short of “the way it happens in the movies" - a harsh truth for the movie-loving kid who stayed with me far too long.

Notes in Passing:  No, the Navy no longer holds any glamour or allure for me, and neither do insurance companies (!). And I married someone far better than Fran Kubelik. But I have other, newer dreams, all of which, I’m sure, will also continue to come from movies.

My parents were not happy when they learned that in reality I had spent the summer of '60 watching Jack lend out his apartment to his bosses for sex.

A kid sinner.

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* * * * *
(from top)
 ~Opening title card for "The Apartment"
~design: United Artists 1960©

  ~Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone
 ~photography: TCM 1960©

~Assorted still shots of Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Hope Holliday and Billy Wilder in "The Apartment" (Publicity shot of Jack Lemmon as C.C. "Bud" Baxter in "The Apartment"; still shot of the office Christmas party, and Lemmon and director Billy Wilder, a "mutual admiration society" on the set)
~Photography: United Artists 1960©