Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Rite of Summer: finding it at the movies

Hiroshi Sugimoto, from Theaters (1978)
Not every movie I see in a summer brings to mind the ones I watched in those summer vacations from high school; nor is it necessarily a mark of quality when a movie does. But I feel a thrill of recognition when I come across them—the movies that, for one reason or another, drag to the surface of my memory not just the movies I watched in those summers, but the entire experience that went along with them: the drives up to the theater in Kalamazoo in the cars of friends; the dark blue glow of twilight at show time; the sense of the sticky Midwestern air growing cooler between when you entered and left. And more often than not, at least the notion of milkshakes and burgers at diners afterward—food rarely wanted, or rather, wanted mainly because it was food shared, part of the whole ceremony that was teenage moviegoing the way I was inducted into it.

Those days are only five or six years gone for me, but are far enough away now that I can miss them. And I am grateful when the best of them comes flooding back and I suddenly have a flicker of what it was all like, a sense that this emotion—an elated and deliberate youthfulness—has not yet vanished from my life altogether. There is no telling what movies will resurrect it. The most forthright attempts at nostalgia-mongering can come off as manipulative and maudlin—so I felt at the end of the night about The Way Way Back—and yet Super 8’s self-conscious evocations of youth and carelessness expertly pulled my every emotional lever. Superhero blockbusters are not guaranteed to summon the feeling: going to see Frances Ha somehow succeeded where the new X-Men movie failed. And yet the last Star Trek movie riddled me giddy with memories of adolescence. So did seeing Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen—alone, no less, with popcorn and wine in a little art-house place in Amherst—so it’s neither novelty nor company that matters, though both those things may help.