Long Shots and Closeups

Home from a screening of Chicago, I was singing “All that jazz” while measuring rice and slicing radishes, punctuating my breathy notes with occasional attempts at syncopated shimmies. The movie had been pure escape, entertainment, a gaudy show, its tantalizingly costumed bodies more lithe and nubile than mine had ever been. But there I was, sassily rocking my posterior and working out my vocal cords while cooking our simple dinner. For two hours during the movie I hadn’t once thought back to Methodist Hospital’s Emergency Room, my husband’s huddled frame bleeding, shivering, in shock. I hadn’t once remembered how long it would be before Steve could drive, let alone run his usual eight daily miles. We’d been close to housebound since he’d broken his fibula, dislocated his shoulder, and suffered multiple abrasions after his bicycle had collided with a car. I grinned through the swaggering, narcotic rhythms of the film, for the first time in two weeks oblivious to my poor husband, in obvious pain beside me. If the movie couldn’t take care of him, then what could I do? Meanwhile, the movie took care of me.

The film’s low camera angles made the characters appear gargantuan, mythic, all-powerful, so that for a short time I’d felt my own sense of powerlessness…

Nothing, not a single character in the movie reminded me of my life. Although I’ve certainly been angry enough to want to shake someone till his teeth rattled, I’ve never thought about actually murdering anyone. As furious as I have been at my former husband, I swear I never once fantasized “taking him out.” But the women in Chicago kill their betraying lovers and not only get away with murder, but also sashay unrepentantly to stardom. Initially a mousy woman hurled to the wall by her perfidious seducer, Renée Zellweger’s Roxie not only shoots the man who did her wrong, but also persuades the city’s most powerful — and unabashedly corrupt — lawyer to take her case, ultimately breaking free of jail, the death sentence, and a numbingly boring marriage. The film’s low camera angles made the characters appear gargantuan, mythic, all-powerful, so that for a short time I’d felt my own sense of powerlessness, inability to keep Steve from pain replaced by gusto, brio, irrepressible vigor.

Seldom do I leave the multiplex overflowing with so much energy, with what used to be called high spirits. Feel-good movies are far rarer now than when I was growing up, an era dominated by Doris Day’s spunky smile and Cary Grant’s off-hand charm. And Doris Day never would have committed murder. My parents took their daughters to very few movies, all carefully chosen, so it was not until long after the fifties that I finally saw such gripping films as On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Man With a Golden Arm. At home, after the advent of television, my mother and father tensed audibly during General Electric Theater’s adaptation of A Doll’s House and the Schlitz Playhouse production of Billy Budd. Though my father did not always change the channel during a program that dove too deeply into the murky undercurrents of our buttoned-up lives, still I knew my parents often worried that the material might be too grim for their daughters — or for themselves. So it is not surprising that, several years before we ever owned a television set, when I was barely six and my younger sister three, it was only after much cautious deliberation that my parents chose the first movie they took us to see. The film they selected was, they were sure, not at all grim, an ideal movie for their daughters’ cinematic initiation: The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz
DIRECTED BY Victor Fleming
(MGM, 1939)

Bear in mind that we had not been prepared by watching even a fourteen-inch TV screen. In 1948 my little sister and I had never seen a cartoon, or anything more animated than a pop-up book. True, the radio, a large drawerless bureau occupying a place in our living room as central as the sofa, sputtered and boomed the Lone Ranger’s clip clops and Colgate jingles, but these aural barrages left us open to our own imaginings. Anticipatory discussions with my mother in the kitchen over my peanut butter and jelly sandwich focused on the fear that active little Liza would be unable to sit still through the movie. Of course, as a grown-up, more sophisticated six, I would be fine.

But the moment the black-and-white turned to color, to a profusion of vivid flowers and a chorus of happy Munchkins, something began to bubble inside me. I started to cry. Quietly. It was all so beautiful. Glinda was beautiful, kind. My crying grew louder. My nose ran, I blubbered. My parents leaned over, asked in whispers what was wrong. I sobbed. They took me out into the lobby, talked to me, tried to calm me down. But back again in the dark, facing the glittering screen, my crying resumed, uncontrollable. My father drove us home in our two-door Ford. No one spoke as we stopped at red lights, intersections in the black and white Phoenix night.

Sometimes when my film critic husband and I see a particularly frightening movie and I flinch, or gasp, or grab his arm, he reminds me, whispers, “It’s only a movie.” We see so many they frequently blur into one another, titles little more than hooks to help dredge up a brief scene, an actor’s name. Steve screens up to half a dozen movies a week. I can absorb half a dozen a month.

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