Once, back in Toronto, I was invited to be part of a movie reviewing team on a local television show. The show was ending its run in six weeks, and one of its participants had dropped out. I was asked if I was interested in filling in for the last six broadcasts.
Well, let’s see. They wanted to pay me to see movies for free and then spout my opinions on television. That one sentence has four of my favorite things in it: getting paid, seeing free movies, spouting my opinions, and being on television.
I said I’d do it.
Though originally excited, my enthusiasm quickly waned, as I learned the difference between being a movie critic and a moviegoer.
Moviegoers see movies they want to see; movie critics have to see everything. I quickly discovered that I didn’t want to see everything. A substantial amount of “everything”, when it comes to movies, is really terrible. Not just today. Always. And then there were movies which, for reasons of my own, I wanted no part of.
The format of the television show was this: The host and three reviewers (one, being me) would see three movies a week. During the broadcast, each reviewer would spearhead a discussion of one of the movies, and participate in discussions of the other two. My problems arose before the first episode, when I was selected to lead the discussion of a movie everyone was praising to the heavens:
Here comes a confession. I’m extremely squeamish about violence. In the movies and in real life – especially in real life – though fabricated violence, manipulated by directors who enjoy using their gifts to scare you as close to death as possible without incurring lawsuits, is almost equally as disturbing.
A lot of people love scary movies. I don’t. I’m scared enough just being alive. In life, you have no idea what’s coming next; that’s all the scariness I require. I mean, I could be writing this post, and Boom! – I’m stricken with Bell’s Palsy. I’d be terrified if that happened. My heart would start pounding and I’d immediately panic. I’d race to a mirror, and cry in horror,
“My God! I’ve got Bell’s Palsy!”
only I’d be crying it out of the side of my mouth, because I have Bell’s Palsy.
I’m fine so far, but you never know.
Being alive provides as much terror as I can handle. I see no reason to pay money to experience more.
This aversion to cinematic fear inducement is not a recent one. I’ve always been that way. I remember, as a kid, as yet unaware of my scaredy-cat proclivities, I begged my older brother to let me join him and his friends on a trip to see The House of Wax.
The House of Wax was one of, if not the first, Three Dimension movies. You’d watch through special glasses, which they gave you on the way in. Because of the “Three-D” process, you had the terrifying experience of things flying off the screen straight at you – thrown punches, hurled spears, dead bodies dipped in wax falling out of closets onto your lap. “Three-D” made scary movies even scarier.
My begging and whining got me what I wanted. My brother would take me with him. The theater where The House of Wax was playing was downtown; we had to get there by streetcar. During the trip, my brother and his friends primed my fear-sensitive pump, teasing me with stories of the impending gorefest I was about to witness. And all in ‘Three-D.”
We bought our tickets and headed through the lobby. That’s when I informed my brother that I wasn’t going in. I was too scared. My brother was furious. He’d let me tag along and now I wouldn’t go in? What was he supposed to do?
I was too young to go home by myself, and my brother refused to take me. What happened then, was that he and his friends saw the movie, and I waited in the lobby. For two hours. Every so often, I’d venture to the door, and peek through the crack to see what was going on. But without my ‘Three-D” glasses on, all I experienced was a blur with screaming.
As I got older, my sensitivity to movie violence did not subside. Even my favorite kind of picture – cowboy pictures – were hardly free from fear-inducing terror. Here’s a secret. It’s not the acts of violence themselves that are upsetting – I can look away for those, as I still do today. The real upsetting part is the anticipatory buildup, inevitably accompanied by tension–enhancing music. There’s no question, some scary stuff is about to occur. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
I have vivid memories of this one cowboy picture. The citizens of a town are trapped inside this flimsy, old barn, surrounded by Indians. Anticipating an imminent attack, the menfolk debate strategy and lecture the womenfolk on the advantages of their shooting themselves rather than being taken prisoner.
Pounding in the background, nerve-rattling and relentless, is the rhythmic beating of Indian drums:
BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom, boom-boom…
Somebody in the barn, maybe an army scout with years of experience fighting Indians in movies, warns the townspeople – and the audience – what to expect:
“When the drums stop,” he announces, “they’ll attack.”
There, in the theater, sits Little Earl, squirming nervously in my seat. My friends look at me like I’m crazy.
EARL’S FRIENDS: ”What are you doing? Nothing’s happened yet!”
EARL: “Don’t worry. It will.”
Now, instead of praying desperately for the drums to stop, I’m begging the movie gods to keep them going. Of course, I know that’s not going to happen. This is a cowboy picture, not a documentary on drumming.
The drums finally stop. Shrieking Indians come jumping through the windows. And I’m under the seat.
That’s who they’re sending to review The Godfather.
A Mafia picture, reputedly violent. I already knew that. I’d read the book. I knew where all the scary parts were.
I wasn’t very happy.
I bought a ticket and took my seat, steeling myself for what I knew was coming. I gave myself a pep talk. “You’re not a kid anymore. You can handle this.” I took a breath and sat back, ready to enjoy a masterpiece.
A guy goes into a bar. I knew what was coming next. A garroting. Somebody sticks a knife into his hand, pinning it to the bar. The garrroting is on its way.
I’m out of my seat, and up the aisle.
The garroting is over, and I’m back, enjoying the picture. Then, a guy who’s unwilling to play ball with the Corleone Family is showing off his prized racehorse. I know what’s coming next. A horse head in the bed.
There’s a long shot of the house. The camera slowly moves in. I know where that camera’s going.
I’m back up the aisle, and into the lobby.
Waiting for the “head in the bed” scene to end, I find myself having this previously unexpressed interest in the hot dogs rotating on metal skewers at the Concession Counter.
“How many of those do you actually sell?”
The kid behind the counter tells me, but I don’t remember the answer. I didn’t really care about the hotdogs. I was simply killing time. You knew that already. And so did the kid.
The rest of The Godfather, I’m up and down. The Don Vito’s assassination, Michael shoots the policemen in the restaurant, Sonny’s murder at the tollbooth, I see them coming, and I’m into the lobby, I’m into the Men’s Room, I walk to the door to see if it’s raining outside. The ticket taker asks me what I do.
“I’m a movie critic.”
“What are you doing out here?”
If you ask me what the high points of The Godfather are, based on what I witnessed personally, I’d say the dancing and the cooking. When they’d taken to “the mattresses”, somebody made a delicious spaghetti sauce.
In the panoply of phobias, the fear of movie violence is hardly a serious concern. Unless, of course, you’re been hired to spearhead a televised discussion of a movie, most of which you missed, cowering elsewhere in the building.
What was I going to say?
“The lobby had some surprisingly elegant carpeting.”
I had a problem. And suddenly, it was “Showtime.”
You’re on the air, being asked your opinion of a movie, most of which you didn’t see. I’m not a good bluffer. Of course, there’s always the option of telling the truth.
“The ‘garroting’ scene? Well, actually, I was in the lobby for that.”
“The horse’s head scene? I was buying Jujifruits.”
“When Michael avenged his father? Yeah, uh…Men’s Room.”
All I remember about the broadcast is that I did just well enough not to be fired. But I knew I had only dodged a bullet, when, at the end, the show’s host announced:
“Next week: Terror House and The Asylum of Satan.”