David Ansen's Life at the Movies

On January 26, 1958 (the date is written in pencil), I began keeping a list of all the movies I'd seen, using lined notebook paper that I further divided in half so that I could get upwards of 50 movies per page. I was 12 years old. (Compulsive? I was too young to know the concept.) I would list the title on the left, then add the last names of the stars, and then give each movie a rating: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Superior. My scoring system was taken from a long-defunct magazine called The Motion Picture Herald.

I started by retroactively listing all the movies I'd seen since 1950, my memory aided by annual hardback anthologies called Screen World, which were compiled by my favorite uncle, Daniel Blum. These were my sacred texts.

The first entry is "Cinderella" (Very Good). At the top of the page, displayed like pennants of college football teams, were my favorite movies of all (12 years') time: "Giant," "Stalag 17," "High Noon," "Picnic," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Carmen Jones." Two years later, in 1960 (on page seven, entry No. 308, "Sink the Bismarck!"), my cinematic sophistication having expanded, I began adding in parentheses the name of the director (Lewis Gilbert).

I've kept up the list my entire life. It now fills 146 handwritten pages—close to 8,000 movies, though the number would be higher had I added all the movies I saw on TV, but in those days I was too much of a purist to include them. I didn't relent until the arrival of the VCR changed what it meant to watch a movie on a tube.

It's the diary of my life: the titles transporting me back to the theaters and cities I saw them in, the people I saw them with. An obscure chunk of my childhood in Los Angeles returns with the 1952 title "Francis Goes to West Point" (raise your hand if you're old enough to remember the "talking mule" series, with Donald O' Connor). The odd sensation of watching James Dean—who was like no one I'd ever seen on screen—for the first time in "Rebel Without a Cause," which opened a month after his death. Just reading the words "The Night of the Hunter" can send a shiver through me (that indelible image of murdered Shelley Winters underwater in her old jalopy, her hair billowing above her). I can remember the first time I saw hail, because I'd just emerged, ecstatic and sun-dazed, from a matinee of "Lawrence of Arabia" at the Beverly Wilshire Theater. Jerry Lewis's "The Nutty Professor" transports me to an outdoor theater on the island of Kos in 1965 where my brother Jim and I laughed at one thing, while the Greek kids always laughed at another. Or the thrill of seeing, back to back, Truffaut's "The Wild Child" and Bertolucci's "The Conformist" in Avery Fisher Hall at the 1970 New York Film Festival, though how I scored the tickets is a complete mystery.

My list may be a lot longer than the average moviegoer's—I'm lucky to have turned my obsession into my profession—but it doesn't tell just my story. These titles defined my generation: they told us who we were, what others thought we were supposed to be (John Wayne, Doris Day), who we wanted to be (Bogie, Audrey Hepburn, Brando, Kim Novak, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor). Between the lines of my list I can read the convulsions of a country that was radically redefining itself as it passed from the big, affluent, homogenized Eisenhower '50s through the roller-coaster ride of the '60s, all the way up to our fragmented and fearful present. It's a long way from "Prince Valiant" and "Three Coins in the Fountain" to "Borat" and "Brokeback Mountain."

Strikingly, the first two or three pages (the early and mid-'50s) are riddled with the names of Roman epics and tales of medieval chivalry ("Demetrius and the Gladiators," "Quo Vadis," "The Black Shield of Falworth," "Knights of the Round Table," "Ivanhoe," "Robin Hood," etc.). It was as if our dominant empire, flush with postwar confidence, saw itself reflected in gigantic epics about great empires past. The history may have been ridiculously romanticized, the sets overlit, the exposed flesh maximized, the movies an excuse to show off the new widescreen technologies (CinemaScope, VistaVision), but the popularity of these movies reveals an era when we could be assumed to be interested in history, and not just our own.

By page five I've reached 1958. My printing shifts from all caps to lowercase, and everything else seems to change, too, as adolescence sets in. My 200th entry is the Faulkner-inspired "The Long, Hot Summer" (Excellent), with sexy troublemaker Paul Newman sniffing around schoolmarm Joanne Woodward. It's a harbinger of Hollywood's obsession with the hothouse South. My list suddenly reeks of hormones, humidity and Freudian subtexts: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Sound and the Fury" "Summer and Smoke," "Suddenly, Last Summer"—tales of impotence and cannibalism, randy spinsters and repressed homosexuality. You can't underestimate how much the fever dreams of Tennessee Williams and William Inge (1961's "Splendor in the Grass") colored our views of the grown-up, carnal world. Is there a woman of my generation who didn't identify with sex-starved Natalie Wood in "Splendor," which seemed to say that you would go crazy if you had sex and even crazier if you didn't? In the hit parade of great late-'50s themes, sexual repression was near the top. (And herein were planted the seeds that would sprout, 10 years later, in the "summer of love.") For a teenager, the hot-button movie of '59 was "Blue Denim," with tortured Carol Lynley and Brandon De Wilde confronting the perils of teen pregnancy and backroom abortions. This was scary, titillating stuff.

In 1958 I fell under the hypnotic spell of Hitchcock's "Vertigo," got a virtuous lump in my throat watching the racial morality tale "The Defiant Ones," rushed out to buy the stirring soundtrack to the Western "The Big Country" and decided that George Stevens—who had made my favorite, "Giant"—was my idea of a great director: my father took me to a revival of Stevens's "A Place in the Sun," which featured the greatest screen kiss (between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift) in Hollywood history. OK, so I wasn't exactly a typical teen moviegoer. I was a very serious young fellow.

But Hollywood could teach us baby boomers only so much. In the early '60s, my high-school years, I discovered foreign films. "The 400 Blows" and "Jules and Jim" were revelations, expanding my view of what movies, and life, could be: why did reality seem so much more real in European movies? They moved to a different rhythm: fresher, sexier, more adult. Forget Stevens, Truffaut was my new main man. I dragged all my baffled friends to repeated viewings of Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" (I said I was serious), and would ride the bus for an hour to get to the Vista theater, where Satyajit Ray's "The World of Apu" or an Ingmar Bergman movie would be playing. Was anybody cooler than Jean-Paul Belmondo in "Breathless"? We knew we were supposed to decry the emptiness of those jaded jet-setters in "La Dolce Vita," but damn, that decadence looked mighty tasty.

Looking over my list from my high-school and college years I'm astonished by how few of the movies were mainstream Hollywood fare. Only a few studio movies could rival the audacity of the overseas films: the chillingly subversive "The Manchurian Candidate," Kubrick's "Lolita" and his apocalyptically hilarious "Dr. Strangelove," a brazen affront to the cold-war status quo. We were a generation in need of new role models, and suddenly in the mid-'60s they arrived—imported from England. Enter the Beatles, long-haired, cocky and exuberantly dismissive of all things establishment. The rock-and-roll tempo and improvised charm of "A Hard Day's Night" seemed to render Hollywood musicals hopelessly obsolete. The new sybaritic Eden was swinging London ("The Knack"), center of all things hip. British cosmopolitanism was the ideal: Sean Connery's martini-sipping James Bond was the action hero of choice, Peter Sellers the high priest of low comedy, heartbreaking Julie Christie ("Darling") the very model of mod. The "Angry Young Men" English movies—"Room at the Top," "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," "This Sporting Life," "A Taste of Honey," then movies like "Morgan" and "The Servant" and "Accident"—were ostensibly (if you were a Brit) about class, but for many of us American kids they offered the first taste of the rebellious spirit that was about to transform the country.

Any story about boomers and their movies has to pivot on two titles from 1967: "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde." These were Hollywood productions from filmmakers, Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn, who were consciously channeling European modes (the screenwriters of "Bonnie and Clyde" had written it with Truffaut in mind). The generational wars, fueled by rage about Vietnam, had commenced ("Don't trust anyone over 30!" being one of the more inane proclamations), and you could read the fault lines in Hollywood. Just look at the five movies up for the best-picture Oscar of '67. The Penn and the Nichols, watershed movies whose styles and attitudes pointed toward the future, were up against "Dr. Dolittle" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which seemed to hail from another era. The winner was a kind of Solomonic compromise between the old guard and the new: "In the Heat of the Night."

When I first saw "The Graduate" it seemed to uncannily mirror my own life. Like Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin, I had just graduated from a college in the East, returned home for a summer in Los Angeles (where I did my share of alienated pool-floating), and when I saw the movie I was, like Benjamin, in Berkeley. It was as if I were seeing my own life on screen for the first time: but of course everybody felt that way. Watching it again recently, I see that part of the secret of its phenomenal success was that Benjamin—who expresses no political opinions, never mentions any of the issues of the day, indeed barely speaks for the first (and best) half of the movie—was a blank slate upon which an entire generation was free to project its self-image. Like Benjamin, we weren't all sure what we wanted, but we knew what we didn't want: "plastics."

But no movie could have prepared us for the radical changes the High Sixties wreaked on our lives. I'll spare you the psychedelic (and stereotypical) details of my personal transformation, except to tell you that in 1970 I found myself, somewhat to my amazement, living on a commune in the mountains of southern Colorado (we were called the Red Rockers) in a geodesic dome we had built with our own heretofore uncalloused hands. My list went with me, but for the first time in my life, five months went by without my seeing a single movie. There was one drive-in theater in Walsenburg, but to see anything decent we had to drive our VW bus to Pueblo, a good 90-minute trek. It was there, in '71, that I saw "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," the beginning of my decadelong love affair with Robert Altman, my new main man. (I gave it an Excellent, having long since retired the Superior rating, which somehow seemed juvenile. The ratings disappeared from my list entirely after I started reviewing movies for a living, at The Real Paper in Boston in 1975.) When Hollywood tried to make movies about hippies and drugs and dropping out, the results seemed pathetically inauthentic. "The Strawberry Statement"? Give me a break. I know "Easy Rider" is supposed to be some kind of countercultural classic, but it struck me and my friends as a crock. Only the music of the period (Dylan, the Stones … you know the list) got it right, and the occasional documentary like "Woodstock" or "Attica." Many of us, of course, were not watching movies in unaltered states. You could smell the cannabis in theaters playing "2001," and if anybody ever sat through an Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey film ("Lonesome Cowboys," "Flesh") straight, they were probably asleep.

By 1972 I had come down from the hills and re-entered civilization. It was a jarring transition, but a steady diet of cinema eased the blow. The country was movie mad. Boston, where I was living, was filled with revival houses, where you could get a comprehensive education in old movies. You could see "The Godfather" and, on the same day and a few subway stops away, a Preston Sturges classic like "The Lady Eve." It's become a clich? to call this period a Golden Age of movies, but for us boomers it sure was. Nobody talked about how much money these movies made; we talked about what they meant to us. Here are just some of the contemporary highlights of the first half of the '70s: "5 Easy Pieces," "The Last Picture Show," "The Godfather, "Mean Streets," "American Graffiti," "Blume in Love " and "Badlands" jump-started the American New Wave. "The French Connection," "Cabaret," "Don't Look Now," "Blazing Saddles," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Sugarland Express," "Chinatown," "Shampoo," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Man Who Would Be King" pumped fresh blood into old genres. France gave us "Murmur of the Heart," "The Grand Bouffe," "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "Playtime"; Canada "Mon Oncle Antoine"; Australia "Walkabout"; Sweden "Cries and Whispers" and "The Emigrants"; India "Days and Nights in the Forest." "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and "Deep End" came out of England, and Fassbinder ("The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant") and Herzog ("Aguirre: The Wrath of God") emerged from Germany. Altman was on the great roll that took him from "The Long Goodbye" to "California Split" to "Nashville," and Coppola astonished us with "The Conversation" and his great sequel "Godfather II."

Then a funny thing happened. Hollywood discovered the youth market—and it was no longer us. Sure, we went to see "Jaws" along with everyone else, and got great goose bumps, but teenagers were calling the commercial shots, and we were now easing into our 30s. In '76, The Real Paper sent me to L.A. to cover the Oscars. It was the year that "Rocky"—a throwback to the crowd-pleasing populist formulas of old—unaccountably KO'd "Taxi Driver," "Network" and "All the President's Men." It was a sign of things to come.

A new generation was demanding different dreams, and it would change the kind of movies that reigned in Hollywood for the next three decades. The following year, in 1977, I went off to a screening of a new studio movie in downtown Boston. It was rumored to be a sleeper. Outside the theater, an old friend offered me a joint. On an impulse I broke my professional rule and had a few tokes of something that proved to be much stronger than I'd expected. The movie popped off the screen like a rocket, resembling nothing so much as the "Flash Gordon" serials I'd seen as a child. I couldn't follow the plot to save my life in my addled condition, but I had the back-to-the-future sensation that the movies had looped back to where they'd started for me, in candy-colored "Demetrius and the Gladiators"-land. Writing about it the next day I had to shamelessly rely on the production notes to explain the story I could only fuzzily piece together, but it was easy to describe the whooshing-through-space special effects and the old-fashioned, bark-out-your-lines acting. The movie, of course, was "Star Wars" (page 36, No. 1,787). It made me feel young again, and, for the first time, very old.