My First Foursome

September 20, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

When it comes to motion pictures, I was a “late bloomer.” I didn’t see my first movie in a theater until I was nine years old. While that’s unheard of today, it was unusual even in the 1970s. On the windy December day when my father first took me to a theater, my mother was with my sisters seeing something else. They were ages six and four.

It’s not that I had no interest in movies – it’s just that TV offered everything I wanted. At the time, my life was comprised of space books and monster movies. The posters in my room were glow-in-the-dark images of the classic Universal monsters. I think if I had expressed an interest in going to the cinema at an earlier age, my parents would have taken me but it wasn’t until I started seeing commercials for the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake that I found something worth going to a theater for.

I think everyone remembers their first. I remember my first four. All were very different experiences but, taken together, they contributed to my early perceptions not only of film but of life. After going nine years without seeing a movie, I watched four in the next year (spanning December 1976 through December 1977) – one of which I saw three times (no prizes for guessing which one that was). After film #4, I can’t remember what came next. I know I didn’t go into hibernation between January 1978 and December 1979 but the next movie experience I can recall was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Anyway, back to the first four…

I think the ads for King Kong started in October and, from the moment I saw the first one, I knew this was something I couldn’t miss. So I did what most fourth-graders do – I pestered my parents and talked to like-minded classmates. I also started writing a King Kong/Godzilla-themed long story. One of my friends contributed illustrations. I was a better writer than he was (or at least I had more endurance – I wrote every day for about nine months) but he was vastly more talented when it came to drawing. His King Kong looked like King Kong. My King Kong looked like…well, let’s just say I knew at the time that I wasn’t destined to be a comic book illustrator.

For my father, this ended up being one of those things you have to do when you have kids. So, on the appointed Sunday afternoon, he split the family up. My mother and my sisters went to see a Disney movie at a theater close to our house. My father and I drove about 15 miles to the Ledgewood Cinema, which was the nearest place showing King Kong. Keep in mind, this was 1976 so there weren’t “multiplexes”, at least not in the sense that there would be a half-decade later. I don’t remember whether Ledgewood was a single-theater, a duplex, or a triplex at the time. But I remember what it was like inside.

The theater itself wasn’t remarkable – with the lights on, it reminded me of my school’s auditorium, although with nicer seats. But when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, it was magical. By this time, I had seen dozens of monster movies on TV – maybe as many as 100. But this was an entirely different experience. I was drawn in. Everything seemed so much bigger. I often wonder whether my lingering fondness for King Kong over the years has been influenced by it being my first time.

King Kong satisfied my immediate thirst. The next movie I was offered was one of the Disney classics during a periodic re-release (this was back when the Disney animated films, which were not available on TV, were in a rotation that brought them back to theaters every seven years). I think it might have been Bambi, but I turned it down. Then, in May 1977, we moved and I went through the process of packing up my old life, saying goodbye to my friends (most of whom I would never again have contact with – in the pre-Internet age, moving had a sad ring of finality to it), and meeting new people. Thankfully, my next-door neighbor, a boy named Tom who was a year younger than I, enjoyed many of the same things. He too loved monster movies. He also liked science fiction. A month or so after I moved in, he showed me a comic book. It was Issue 4 of a “limited series” based on a new movie. Yeah, you guessed it – Star Wars.

Star Wars was on my radar for at least a month before I saw it. Unlike King Kong, I wasn’t dying to see it but I knew that, at some point, I wanted to. When my friend’s family announced they were going to a drive-in that evening to see Star Wars, my lost-puppy eyes gained me an invitation. The vehicle, of course, was a station wagon. This wasn’t the first time I had been to a drive-in. My parents had bundled me and my sisters into the car during the summer of 1975 to see Jaws. I didn’t make it much past the naked woman swimming before I fell asleep – this is one reason I don’t consider Jaws to be my first real movie. For Star Wars, however, I stayed awake, although Tom’s sister, Cathy, didn’t. The things that bored her enthralled me. That Saturday night at the drive-in was the beginning of a short but passionate affair with George Lucas’ creation that would fade once the starship Enterprise took its place.

I saw Star Wars twice more that summer (and once each during the summers of 1978 and 1979 during re-releases). The second time I saw it was also in a drive-in (the same drive-in), although this time it was with my family. Tom wasn’t with us, although I seem to remember having invited him as part of a quid pro quo. He and I went together in late August to see it indoors. By the time fifth grade started, I had been to the movies four times, and three of those had been for the same film. Meanwhile, poor King Kong had faded into a distant second place on my list of interests. Space ships and dark lords had replaced monsters in the stories I wrote. Having lost my illustrator, I made do with mere text.

The third movie I saw was, unlikely as it may sound all these years later, Oh God! George Burns, John Denver, Teri Garr. I have only seen it once – in November 1977 – yet, more than 40 years later, I recall it with a strange sense of clarity. It’s not a good movie – never was, never will be – but represented the first disposable film I saw. Up to that point, every time I had gone to the movies (admittedly a small sample size), it had been an event. This time, it was something to kill a school off-day. My mother and our next-door neighbor bundled me, my sisters, Tom, and Cathy into the station wagon (two adults and one kid in the front, four kids crammed into the back – not an unusual configuration in the ‘70s). I remember that it felt strange going into the theater complex (a four-plex) where I had seen Star Wars two months earlier but not seeing something special. Cognitive dissonance.

The experience of seeing Oh God!, which I didn’t particularly like, taught me the lesson that going to the movies could be tedious. Over the years, I discovered that there are more titles in that category than one would hope and the more desperately Hollywood tries to make “event” movies, the more the concept is devalued. Even the most lavish 2018 productions (good as they might be) lack the vague, indescribable magic that caused their forebears to leave such an indelible impression.

Fortunately, after Oh God!, I didn’t have to wait long to return to a theater and this time it was for another special film: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

We called it “CE3K,” because that sounded cool. We learned how to play the signature five-note tune on the piano. The pre-release hype rode the Star Wars wave, not because the films were anything alike but because they were made by kindred spirits and appealed to the same sci-fi-tinged aspect of fantasy-adventure beloved by boys. (Girls, in my experience, didn’t much care for either Star Wars or Close Encounters – at least in 1977. Maybe I was just hanging out with the wrong sorts of girls. Today, of course, the gender appeal has broadened, but that’s another ReelThought.)

Of the first four films I saw, Close Encounters was the most “adult” in terms of content, approach, and thematic material. At the time, I found it to be haunting. It gripped my attention on a level that Star Wars didn’t reach. George Lucas’ space opera ultimately became as much about the ancillary products – action figures, trading cards, comic books, novels, bed sheets, posters, etc. – as the movie itself. For Star Wars, 1978 was the year of merchandising excess. It was different with Close Encounters. There was a book (which I bought and read), a record album, and trading cards, but that was about it. The movie was marketed more for adults than kids yet there were many children my age (10 at the time) who were enraptured. While I believe that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most successful of the director’s “pure entertainment” movies, Close Encounters joins Jaws fighting for second place.

After Close Encounters, I don’t remember much about movie-going for the next couple of years. I saw Superman in 1978 but don’t recall a thing about the experience. Other theater trips came and went; it wasn’t until December 1979 and Star Trek: The Motion Picture that my memories again crystalize. Following the two showings of Star Wars during the summer of 1977, I never went back to a drive-in. That location has long since been razed (a multiplex rose on the site in 1992 only to be demolished 15 years later). The theater where I saw Oh God! is now a parking lot. The Close Encounters locale, a 2000-seat palace in 1977, has undergone numerous transformations since then but a new Regal 12-plex exists on the same site. Strangely, the King Kong theater still exists and, based on reports, hasn’t changed all that much in 40 years. (A friend who lives in the area calls it “a dump” and he studiously avoids it even though it’s the closest theater to his house.)

Much of who I am as a movie-goer was formed by those early experiences. Had I seen four other films – a Disney movie or two and a couple traditionally family-friendly productions – my tastes today might be radically different. It goes beyond that, however. King Kong, Star Wars, and Close Encounters were more to me than movies. They formed cornerstones of my personality, building blocks upon which whole segments of me were built.

Does 2018 cinema retain more than an echo of the fundamental power it had in 1977? In 40 years, will my son look back on his early days and reminisce about how his first four films established aspects of his character? Will he even remember what those four films were? (I confess I don’t know what they were, although he has seen twice as many movies at age 8 than I saw by the time I turned 11.) The transformation of movies into easily digestible, disposable entertainment has made them more accessible and financially successful than at any time during their existence. But I wonder whether something fundamental has been lost in the process.