Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why I'm Going Home for the Oscars

At a dinner party recently I heard a man named Derek tell a group of friends that he was once so sick he watched the entire Academy Awards. He went on to describe the ailment that left him prone, miserable, and powerless to change the channel while Oscar nominees and their fancy guests made their way from the red carpet to their seats and--the lucky ones anyway--to the stage.

I listened to all this politely, aware that for Derek this experience was real and powerful, and powerfully annoying. I felt fortunate listening to him, but not because I’ve never been that sick, and not because I’d have had someone to change the channel for me.

I grew up in a house where we weren't allowed to talk during the Oscars. Where movies were everything, and what held us together was conversation about all things movies. Where I came to know Cher as supporting actress in Silkwood before she had any other identity to me. And where our VHS copy of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was worn thin and ratty by the time DVDs were abundant and affordable.

One of my earliest memories is Oscar night. It's hard to pin down what year it was, but it's a safe bet that it was 1980 or 1981. I was sitting on the floor rubbing my mom's feet--something my sisters and brothers and I took turns doing while we were watching TV. She was sitting in one of two "easy chairs." My dad sat in the other one, a clipboard in hand and a monogrammed mechanical pencil in the other. He was at the ready, his Oscar picks and predictions carefully listed in the half-cursive, half-printing we know as his penmanship.

My older brother had taken a page of yellow legal paper from the clipboard pad and was circulating it among us on the floor, leading my older siblings to wander, at intervals, into hushed giggles as if we were in church. Finally, at a commercial, my dad asked what was going on. I, the little sister, spoke up that my brother had been circulating a picture of "The Gays," which is what we were calling the scrawled stick figures on the now crumpled paper. I had no idea what that meant or what would happen next, but the commercial was over and the issue seemed to flare up and then die out within an instant. The Oscars were on.

In the summer of 1982 my mom thought I should see E.T. My dad had already seen it--not so much to pre-screen it for us kids, but because he saw everything. Sometimes he'd go to movies late at night after dinner, coming home while everyone slept and, if we were lucky, leaving leftover popcorn for us on the kitchen table. The E.T. date was planned for a Saturday afternoon, and my older brother was to accompany me. He was 7 and I was 5, and our mom must have thought the movie theater was a safe enough place to let us go on our own. She dropped us off and counted out four singles for my brother on the hot brown leather seat of our station wagon. This was enough for the two of us to attend a matinee. We climbed out into the sun and my brother took my hand as he would when walking me to my first grade classroom the following year. The sunlight seared my eyes, but within a few minutes we were walking the air-conditioned corridor, tickets in hand, to see my first movie.

When I was in eighth grade Kathy Bates was up against Julia Roberts in the Best Actress category. I was watching the show at my friend Shelley's house, and for the first time I started to appreciate how watching the Oscars at someone else's house was different from being at home. I also remember trying—and failing—to explain to my friend why Bates' performance in Misery was a shoe-in. Shelley contended that Roberts' performance in Pretty Woman still had a chance. After all, Shelley said, Julia "still had to act like a hooker." The reasoning rings in my ears as something that would never be uttered aloud in the house I grew up in.

At some point my dad retired, and later an email came to all us kids, telling us that he had been offered part-time work as a "Verifier" at a local theater. His job was to sit in the movies (his admission was paid) and document whether the lights dimmed on time, the ads and previews started and stopped on time, and that the correct movie was projected. In his email he joked that, "You kids always said that some day they would pay ME to go to the movies and it's finally come to pass." That year for his birthday I gave him an engraved clipboard to hold his verification sheets. The metal clip bore a small plaque that read, "John Cannon, Moviegoer."

And we would drive distances to find a movie that we just had to see before it “left.” In the Chicago metropolitan area there must be hundreds of cinemas. In one of the gargantuan suburban multiplexes, I once heard a man joke to his wife (a tired-looking woman who craned her neck to puzzle out the huge display of titles and times), “Honey, what time is our flight?” Other theaters, like the Catlow in Barrington, are faded storefronts cleverly disguising one or two art house screens—tiny establishments you could pass by on the sidewalk if you didn’t know they were there.

In my parents’ kitchen a magnetic clip on one side of the refrigerator has held a list of theater directions, movie timetables and reviews for decades. The original fridge of my childhood has come and gone, replaced with a fancy model that dispenses distilled water from the inside. The whole kitchen has been remodeled more than once, but still there is that stack of papers telling us our options for the weekend.

As in the movies, some touchstones remain: people and things blissfully unscathed, throughout the course of time. Others rise, resilient, from the tumult of any particular era. In our house—years before he appeared online with a reconstructed chin, computer-generated voice, and a take-no-prisoners Twitter feed—Roger Ebert was our local movie critic whose overweight newsprint face would smudge and smear as we passed the Sunday Sun-Times around the den.

If ever I find myself in conversations where people are debating whether the movie theater will be open on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, my answer rises calmly and without equivocation. It begins with, “Trust me…” I know the theater is open on Thanksgiving and Christmas because in my family we go to movies on these holidays. Many Oscar contenders are released in the last six weeks of the year, and most of them will appear on email lists circulated among us in preparation for a holiday reunion. The messy reply-all action ensues, and pretty soon we have agreed on a slate of movies to see together.

The last time I remember having a TV was in 1998, and I am sure I watched the Oscars alone in my college dorm room then. I had seen The Big Lebowski the previous fall, and was so moved by its patchwork of characters and plot developments that I wrote an essay about it. I wasn't equipped to use phrases like "plot development" at that point, but I recall thinking, "You can make a movie like this?" It opened my world by its sheer audacity of newness. The Coen Brothers made that movie because they could. It was unlike anything. What might I imagine or create or be?

If a conversation at home winds its way to the Oscars, as it often does, I can hold my own, punctuating the one-upsman's challenge with these temporal markers, knowing the years of movies by who won which award, and vice versa. It's how we tell time in my family.

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