Every time a teenage student asks me whether I’ve seen “classic” films such as Scarface (1983) or Do the Right Thing (1989) I feel the flutter of an eye twitch like the one that afflicts the debonair Chief Inspector Dreyfus over the course of three genuinely classic Pink Panther movies–A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Dreyfus goes from mad to barking mad to full-on world-destroying bonkers, driven by the grandiose incompetence of his subordinate and nemesis, Inspector Clouseau. Clouseau’s pratfalls and misdirected karate lunges, his proclivity for smashing antique pianos and setting his own trench coat on fire, all vex Dreyfus, but what kills him is the way Clouseau always comes out unscathed–and even builds, upon his dubious talents, a reputation as a brilliant detective.
Thus, the lesson I take from Dreyfus is to give up futile efforts to set the record straight.
That’s why I don’t try share my hidebound views with the youngsters: a movie is not really a classic unless it’s in black and white, or in sticky, over-saturated color. It’s not a classic if it’s recorded, like Do the Right Thing, in Dolby sound. It’s not a classic if its actors are still starring in feature films.
In fact, let’s throw off labels like “classic” altogether. Instead of sorting movies into ever-narrower categories, we should experience cinema as a rich, swirling, chunky cultural soup. That’s what got served up to me during my own formative years. Like many sons and daughters of Western Pennsylvania, I used to frequent the Pittsburgh Playhouse repertory series (which showed movies in a building where a drama school also staged plays). Trips to the Playhouse gave me and my age-mates a little taste of everything — Fassbinder and Fellini, Groucho and Harpo, Harold and Maude, Lancelot and Guinevere. Just recently, several of us on Facebook have been celebrating a nostalgia-fest on this very topic.
The Playhouse film calendar came in the mail every month, printed in a single color: orange for October, for example, or brown for November. We would grab it as soon as we got it and circle all the movies that we wanted to see. The epitome of teen disappointment was to circle something and then realize you were looking at last month’s schedule. I was never sure whether the color was coordinated to the season or not.
Treading the lobby’s well-worn carpets, we piled into the movie line in packs, wearing army jackets, torn jeans, and hippie skirts — this was in the ’80s, but a lot of us had a ’60s thing going, partly fueled by Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Hair (1979). Whenever possible, we filed into the short rows in the balcony, where we could sit in the hard wooden seats and sway, singing along to the musicals and group-cry at the sad parts.
To our credit, we did all right during the comedies, resisting the adolescent urge to dissolve into giggle fits. If I remember right, we saved that for afternoon cereal snacks the next day, re-enacting scenes from Young Frankenstein (1974) or bits from Monty Python, trying to get one another to “snarf” milk through the nose.
On weekends the place was often crowded, and in those laxer, less liability-conscious, days we sat in the aisles or leaned against the wall at the back. For a showing of Camelot (1967), four or five of us, ninth-grade girls, managed to squeeze into the front row, which had less than six inches of leg room. We just hoisted our legs up onto the stage. I recall a zig-zag pattern of legs, sneaker to hip, hip to sneaker, under the benevolent gaze of Richard Harris’s giant face. Like Harris’s King Arthur, we little suspected that our own round table — more accurately, our rectangular breakfast nook — was about to be busted up by romantic rivalries. Only some of the wounds, after 30 years, have fully healed.
After Camelot fell, we went to the Playhouse on dates, or double or quadruple dates, or in pairs where same-sex friendships had survived the upheaval. It was perfectly cool, as well, to go with a parent. My dad took me to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), in a double-feature with Modern Times (1936). Later, a friend’s mom introduced us to Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman series (1987-1988). Even cooler was going with an older sibling. I’m pretty sure it was my stepbrother who took me to see Dr. Strangelove (1964).
At $2.50 or maybe a little more, admission cost about half the price of commercial cinemas, low enough to pay for with an allowance or the proceeds from an after-school minimum-wage job, low enough to bring your kids’ friends or your friends’ kids, or whatever. You could go see a movie just because you were curious, or there was nothing else to do that night, or someone else thought it was a good idea. Bergman’s version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1975), the film adaptation of Günther Grass’s novel The Tin Drum (1979), and the tragic artist biopic Camille Claudel (1988) all came into my life that way.
In fact, we could rent any of these films today, but that means nothing. What we lost, when the Playhouse series finally ended in the 1990s, was the opportunity for shared adventure. Some of the young people I meet these days, especially in California, can talk more fluidly than I ever could about film genres, jump shots, montages, and camera angles, but we were in the movies, dancing with the hippies in Central Park, burlesquing the Nazis and outwitting the Yakuza, sculpting in marble, negotiating the perilous street life of post-World War II Germany, lassoing and riding a doomsday nuke toward the soon-to-be epicenter of World War III. Together, we were absorbing flashes from myriad facets of our culture, synthesizing what we learned, constructing images not just of one but of many possible worlds.