The Movies

projectorThe theater was not what I expected.  It was a theater time forgot, with awful threadbare printed carpet and a box office with wooden ledges.  I bought my ticket ($12, thank you), and went up the stairs.  I turned the corner to go to the bathroom.  I almost ran smack into a cutout of a movie villain and nearly wet my pants right there.

Then the movie, yes.  “Her.”  Being in love is like having a voice in your ear.  From what I remember.  That voice.  All the time.  In your ear.  Ticklish.  It doesn’t matter if who you love is real, or, rather, you loving makes her real.

And touching matters, but not as much as the voice.  Nothing could matter as much as that.

I walked a lot of the way home, although I didn’t have to, it was both frugal and the movie was that good.  I wanted to be alone with it.  Sidewalk after sidewalk, block by block, windows of chandeliers and bookcases in bay windows of brownstones, narrow building after narrow building, stoop after stoop, with the park at my right hand.  I thought about people I have been in love with.

I love stories about loneliness because loneliness is so sweet and so sour, and I also love movies that say, “sex is the least of it,” without being coy.

The main character in “Her” goes out on date with real person, and it ends the awful way it can.  At important kissing moment, girl says, “Will you?  Are you serious?”  and boy says, “Whoa, there,” resulting in the usual sad stop of kissing all together.

For the first time, I did not have to pay the entry fee at the Museum of Modern Art (I got a membership), so I was at leisure to have lunch, and then to look at very little, or nothing, at my leisure.

The atrium had benches and carpet, and people of all ages were sitting, lying, propped on elbows, letting the film go, some of them watching, some not.  It is low tourist season here, and that made is seem cozier, too.  No one in the atrium was someone in town cramming art, photos with Matisse before running to photos with Times Square. It was too cold out, too rough.  We were inside, warm.  We were sitting, lying, propped up on elbows, eyes closed, on phones, what have you.  We watched and didn’t watch Chinese angels flying outside mile-tall office buildings, and a lady in 1940 riding a trolley and lighting a Chinese cigarette in a Chinese alley.

Around the corner, I saw a few more films.  One of a fountain and an intersection of cars.  One a reenactment of the guy, H.M., who is a famous test subject for memory problems.  An epileptic, he lost parts of his brain, and now is unable to form new memories.  In the film, two projections showed him, on one square, and images of things he knew about, or would never know about, on another.

I liked that, the memory stuff, even if the reenactment made it feel disingenuous, and more than that, I liked the sound of the film, real film, flipping and ticking along, the way films did in my elementary school gym, big reels, big screen, all of us on the bleachers, eyes peeled.  Flipping, ticking, like an eggbeater, like a card in a  bicycle wheel.  Maybe the card in a wheel somewhere far away, in a season not now, the fluttery pace of time second by second going faster than you thought it was.

Link to the film at MoMA


Everyone was as still for Bach as they were bouncy for Al Green.  As rabidly as I’d danced to the Jackson 5 Saturday night, I sat still for Bach on Sunday. I closed my eyes, even.

Pop music goes forward, neatly, in a way you expect, and it reinforces what you want and where you thought you were going.  The mass does this, too.  There will be peace with you.  There will be holy, holy, holy.  There will be body of Christ.  You’re never going to walk in there and hear them switch it up.

Bach goes in circles.  He starts going in circles, and then winds up when he feels like it.  I wondered about his world.  The state, the organization of things, was choppier then.  But your social world was so much more regimented.  You generally became who you were born to be.  I wasn’t born to be anyone, in particular.

I watched “Peggy Sue Got Married” between concerts.  It goes in circles, and it goes forward, neatly, in the way you expect.  I’m 34, not quite as old as Peggy, but I felt her astonishment at walking into her childhood home.  I dream of mine, often.

Time travel movies ask: what could be changed, but how different would things really be?  Sure, McFly can punch Biff, but he’s still your dad, and he loves you, and he’s just as weak and strong as dads are.  It doesn’t really matter that he’s more chipper in the revised 1985.

Peggy has to go back to understand her husband.  To understand meant-to-be.  That’s the pop song part.  That’s what you expect.  How else can you regard the significant people in your life, but as meant to be?  Anything less would be frightening.  Time travel stories require both forward meant-to-be and circles.

There is no big decision in my past that I can imagine making differently.  Maybe I’m too young.  All I can agree with Peggy about is: you love who you love, the way that you love them, and there’s no redirecting it.  You love grasping, or openly, or nervously, or bitterly, wishing he was someone else or that you were, loving against good sense, or only in mind, or mostly in body.  And there just isn’t much to be done about it.  That is what happens, and it’s best, I think, to go with it more than you fight it.

There were violins playing Bach today.  I used to play.  I remember people joking about having a circular bow, so that we wouldn’t need to worry about bowstrokes anymore.  In the orchestra, the motion of your bows is decided, and then everyone’s supposed to go that way.  It’s not part of the music—it just looks better.  If you had a circular bow, you’d just go around and around.

Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from the Oscar-Winning Film “Amadeus”

When I was in about sixth grade, we got a VCR.  Suddenly we could control what was on our television!  You could watch whatever you wanted as long as it was “The Wizard of Oz,” “I Love Lucy” episodes, or “Amadeus.”  Those were the only videos we had.  “Amadeus” features such haunting images as an old man dripping blood from a suicide attempt and a slumped corpse being thrown into a pauper’s grave and covered with lime.  (I asked about that and learned what lime was.)  The movie, frankly, scared me to death.  Those parts, and the part when Mozart’s wife progressively gets louder, “Wolfi… Wolfi?… Wolfi?!”  He is pale and limp.  Dead.

The film taught me many valuable lessons about being an artist, though.  I have, over the years, found myself reciting lines from it, and acting out little gestures, without even realizing it.  Such is the power of childhood imagery.  What did I learn?

1. Being an artist means being a little crazy. Mozart runs in the film in his first scene, chasing this woman with abundant cleavage, and talking backwards to her.  One thing he says is, “Kiss my ass.”  Shocking to my young ears!  Clearly the woman likes him for being so wacky, though.  That was promising.

2. Work hard; play hard. Mozart composes like a bullet train standing at his pool table  (occasionally sliding a billiard ball away, and letting it roll back).  Then at night he goes out and dances and screams and laughs all night.  That looked pretty fun.

3. Artists have a selfish core. The truth is, if you want to make things badly enough, there are days you’d run over your own mother to get where you want to be.  If you date an artist, at some point you’ll end up saying, “Just let me be near you while you work,” as Mozart’s wife does.  Poor wifey falls asleep at the table.  He goes out partying, without telling her.  Why aren’t you fun anymore? he asks her at another point.  I guess because she’s the one who gets to worry about paying the rent and feeding their kid.  I’ve been on both sides of that.

4. You will be haunted. In the movie, Mozart is haunted by his dead father, and Salieri is able to play upon this to drive his nemesis crazy.  The best way to get working is to get haunted.  Haunted by your past.  Haunted by the work of someone else.  Haunted by some image or theory that no one else is likely to care much about.

5. You’re either fighting God, or full of Him.  Salieri is dried out, broken up, bitter, fighting.  Mozart is, mostly, just cranking it out, and completely sure of his brilliance.  To the point of seeming like a real arrogant fuck.  Artists go back and forth between those two states.  Sometimes in the same hour.

6. You have to be who you are.  Although Salieri spends the whole movie angry he’s not Mozart, in the end, he blesses mediocrity.  I had to slowly accept that I was not a savant.  My teachers and parents told me I was amazing and wonderful, and I kind of believed them.  But I was not, am not, Mozart.  Most people aren’t.  I’ve loved and treasured books by people who are just okay writers.  They meant something to me because we shared a sensibility or certain experiences, or because they write some wish-fulfillment of mine.  How awful if they had sat down and never written because they weren’t Mozart, or Melville, or Shakespeare.  Much as I love the heavy hitters, the godfathers in the pantheon of art, they still leave room for smaller, nearer voices.

The Heights

I guess movies about teachers are made for people who think they could never be teachers, so that they can imagine how great a challenge  it would be.  Like I would watch a movie about climbing Mount Everest.  Real mountain climbers probably don’t spend a lot of time watching the Discovery Channel, either.  They probably are busy rebandaging the stumps of their amputated toes.

Or maybe I should say, I hope those movies aren’t intended for teachers, because they make this teacher want to board a plane for the south of France and lie on the beach until my money runs out.  I am nothing like those inspirational teachers.  I’d like to be.  Who wouldn’t?  Challenged, celebrated, beloved.

A recent meeting forced me to sit and watch portions of “Stand and Deliver.”  I know this was supposed to help us and inspire us.  But I can be crochety and sensitive, even in the afternoon.

We were told to notice what the teacher did to make his students successful.  All his AP students got 4s and 5s (out of 5) on the Calculus AP Exam, you see, even though they were poor.  Lesson learned: poor kids can achieve, it’s just that their teachers don’t work hard enough and don’t care enough.

My students are socioeconomically and academically poor, and for the last two years, they have mostly gotten 1s on the AP test.  I’ve had a couple of 2s and 3s.  I think I work hard.  I think I care.  I hope their scores will get better as I get more knowledgeable and experienced.

It hurt to watch that stupid movie, though.  Me and my lame little half-wit urban teaching thing.  How well could the kids do when I am sleeping late, writing essays, watching television, and attending parties on the weekend instead of running extra tutoring sessions?

In my saner moments, I think it’s better to have a teacher who is happy and well-balanced than a Type A neurotic lunatic with a one-track mind rabidly chasing one test score.  How can kids know how to lead a balanced life without balanced role models in the community?  But then a silly movie pulls me back into my favorite self-flagellating loop, reinforces the message often sent to teachers.  Work harder.  Care more.

(There are people who are happy to be Type As and use tests scores as motivation without becoming neurotic.  I’m just not one of those people.)

I’ve only seen one movie about teaching that I enjoyed.  I can’t say it will inspire you, particularly.  It does contain some truth about urban schools.  Lots of them are generally calm, happy places.

The grown-ups there are a fascinating collection of idealists who are constantly moving between optimism and despair, depending on the moment.  Many of them have a religious or political inspiration to teach in the city.  Some love a challenge.  And a few are too far outside the box to get hired by a more functional school system– for good or for ill.

The main thing urban teachers have in common is that they are tired, and they are some of the most calm and patient people you have ever met, or else they would have run screaming out the door before October.

The movie I did like is “Half Nelson.”  Now the teacher is a drug addict, which freaks people out,  but I found that reassuring, because while my issues are much less dangerous, I can also be self-destructive.  The “Half Nelson” teacher sometimes shows up at work and his eyes look dead like he just wants to crawl under the table.  But who among us has not shown up at work that way?

That teacher wants to be a good example, a great teacher and role model, but he’s just a human being with some common human problems.  He tries to save other people while he’s trying to save himself.

This is my fifth year teaching at an urban school.  It was always my goal to get through and past five years.  Somewhere I read that only 50% of urban teachers make it past five years.  So I’m almost to the top of my mountain, and I do want to focus more on toe-bandaging than nursing grudges against Hollywood.