Mothers of America, let your kids go to the movies! ...It's true that fresh air is good for the body but what about the soul that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images? —Frank O'Hara, "Ave Maria" (from Lunch Poems, 1964)
During one of my conversations with film historian Matthew Kennedy, I realized that both of us had acquired our love of movies through our mothers, which led me to wonder how many other cinephiles—filmmakers and audience alike—have shared a similar experience. In the past year, I have asked several individuals where their mothers had any influence on their cinephilia. “Did she influence the movies you watched or—in the case of filmmakers—the movies you've made?” Here's a sampling I've received from Bay Area filmmakers, programmers, critics and fans.
My mother was an adolescent in the ’30s and a big film fan—she turned 13 just four months before the Code went into effect. She liked Gable and Grant all right, but really liked Robert Montgomery. She had a full out crush on Leslie Howard, even copying his signature after she got his autograph. But her mother influenced what she could see. Anything with Irene Dunne was fine—Miss Dunne was a refined lady. The Marx Brothers were approved as good clean entertainment, and my mother adored them. She declared A Night at the Opera the funniest movie she'd ever seen. Fred and Ginger were fine, MGM was likely to deliver acceptable films, and most of the Warner Bros. output was somehow approved. Loy and Powell films were grown-up and sophisticated, but not immoral. But "naughty" Jean Harlow and Kay Francis were off limits. And forget Mae West! Of course this only inspired her to sneak into the forbidden pictures with her friends. I was told all this as my mother and I watched oldies together on TV when I was a child, and it continued all the way into the 21st century with many happy hours shared with TCM. I've come to appreciate how knowledgeable she was, and I can't see ’30s films without mentally referencing stories of her favorites, and her mother's approval ratings. Yes, absolutely, my love of classic American film began with my mother. —Matthew Kennedy, film historian
That's an interesting question and I'm glad you asked it. She had an enormous influence on my moviegoing habits. She was a normal, conservative Jewish mother. She wasn't overly religious or anything; she was just a normal mom. But she also loved movies. Sitting home alone in the den on Sunday afternoon watching really cool movies was sort of always happening.
Plus, she had the nerve—along with my dad—of taking my brother and me to see Psycho when it opened up. She got a lot of heat for that. But I was so proud of her—I was grateful—because I didn't even have to argue. I didn't have to beg and plead. I said, ‘Let's go see this Alfred Hitchcock movie,’ and she said, ‘Oh yes, honey, I think that would be great.’ So there I am going to see Psycho. I'm the youngest person in the theater. My mom was cautious and conservative; but, when it came to movies, she really wanted me to see a lot of movies and they were usually really good movies. So, yeah, she fostered a strong, kinetic, movie-going habit.
I also had a traumatic experience with my first movie ever and she was involved. She took me to see Bambi at 4; it was my first movie. Unfortunately, I got traumatized and had to be taken out of the theater. Even though it was a long time ago, the experience stays with you. I felt like she rescued me out of that situation. I'll always remember being in the back seat of the cab going home. I think most parents just didn't perceive that Bambi could be potentially traumatic for children. They trusted Walt Disney because it was a cartoon; but, it was probably far more emotionally destructive for children than any live-action movie made at that time. —Elliot Lavine, programmer
I don't know if I can say my mother had much of an influence over my movie-watching habits. All I can remember is her constant talking about Madame Curie starring Greer Garson, which I only caught a glimpse of just a few weeks ago. She also admired Garson's Mrs. Miniver. I think she was inspired by wartime depictions of strong women who endured European upheaval, while she lived through the bombing of Tokyo around the same time.
My other memories of her movie choices are associated with horror. I was traumatized by the only scene I can remember from The Bashful Elephant (1962), in which a little girl falls down a cathedral stairway and is knocked unconscious. The elephant picks her up and carries her to safety. Then my mother took me to a drive-in near the Texas-Mexican border to watch Psycho, a mystifying movie choice for a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old. Still, I'm glad to consider this my first real cinematic experience since it was so intense. I dove behind the seat during the shower scene and finally came back up during the fruit-cellar scene. I haven't been the same since! —Frako Loden, film critic
My mother is a strong woman, from a long line of strong women, from suffragette to adventurer to businesswomen. She always loved to sit me down in front of classic Hollywood movies about strong women, usually starring Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Norma Shearer, Mae West, Irene Dunne, later Jane Fonda, Vanessa and Lynne Redgrave, Ruth Gordon, Meryl Streep. From Kitty Foyle to Auntie Mame to Harold and Maude, my mom made sure my sisters and I understood that women's stories are just as vibrant, interesting and sexy as men's stories. If only today's Hollywood would be hip enough to understand that. —Jan Wahl, film critic
I guess my answer would be simple: My mother had a hardcover edition of the biography John Huston: King Rebel. This made an impression on me. —Johnny Ray Huston, Film Critic
I remember my mum took me to see Ken Loach's Kes when it was first in theaters in the mid-’60s. That pretty much says it all. —Graham Leggat, executive director, San Francisco Film Society
My mother was incredibly demure, but she'd watch about anything that involved explosions. She had a particular weak spot for Chuck Norris and golden-era Mel Gibson. She once told me that Dirty Dancing (R) was ‘not OK with God,’ but that Die Hard (also rated R) was ‘a great example of what someone will do for another they love.’ (The MacLaine divorce situation never really dawned on her.) She didn't remember names or stories much and she surely didn't give me warm fuzzies about movies often, but what she did value was melodrama and that's proven really valuable to me. She said it clearest the night I mistakenly rented Boogie Nights with her. ‘I don't like movies where the villains and the heroes are hard to see,’ she said.
It really wasn't clear until that point how extensively our lives had been run on this coherence principle: We functioned via a good vs. evil paradigm that wasn't just the province of Steven Seagal (not her favorite). If you see things that way, which is as common for the Catholic as it is for the American Movie Traditionalist, movies take on a really cathartic value: They organize life in a way that's palatable and comforting and ultimately gives you some belief that the hard choices in life could be as clearly delineated as they are when Alan Rickman's crony threatens a pregnant woman with a machine gun. I obviously don't hope for such trauma in the real world, but trouble is inevitable and what makes it difficult are moral tensions. When the moral complications are alleviated, so are most other complications, and while I don't subscribe to the belief all media should be this way (Heaven's, no!) I do see why my mother, and most of earth, find it a profound relief to see things outlined that way. It's like a bedtime story—but a touch more exciting. —Sara Maria Vizcarrondo, film critic
To answer your question simply: Yes, she did. Hugely. She took me for my first big-screen movie (101 Dalmations), and, as the story goes, when the end credits were finished I looked at her and said ‘Again.’ It was bitter winter outside, and so she figured what the hell? Little did she know what she was creating....We still always go out to movies when we're together, and I would say her biggest general contribution to my cinephilia was to instill in me at an early age a healthy guiltlessness at taking in a matinee (in contrast with many normal civilians). We've watched a lot of noirs together, and she always remembers the actors' names while I never can. —Max Goldberg, film critic
Mom influenced my passion for film in indirect ways, starting with a 1953 pre-natal outing to see Vincent Price's House of Wax in 3-D. Family legend has it that I kicked at those womb walls longer and harder than at any other time during her pregnancy. Growing up, we didn't share an affinity for the same movies, though I did make a mental note when she and my aunt slipped off to see Rock Hudson's Come September three times in one week during that 1961 family vacation at the Jersey shore. When the opportunity for a part-time ushering job arrived during high school junior year, it was Mom who convinced Dad that I could handle it and keep up with school work. She was also the one who drove me back and forth to the theater until I got my own license. And it was ultimately that job in the early 1970s, with its opportunity to watch screening after screening of films by Ken Russell, Robert Altman, John Schlesinger, Bob Rafelson and others, that launched my love for cinema. Thanks, Mom. —Michael Hawley, film critic
I think in a sense she did because anytime she acted as though I shouldn't see something, it made it immediately more desirable. I remember her not wanting me to see The Exorcist when I was a real little kid so, of course, I waited until my aunt was babysitting and rented it knowing there must be something good about it. It made me love sacrilege! I also remember her not wanting to take me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark because of the face-melting finale. Whatever! That probably caused me to be obsessed with gore! —Joshua Grannell, drag star, impresario, filmmaker
I would certainly say that my mother's passion for film influenced my own. Growing up, I was exposed mostly to indie fare, foreign films and pretty much anything involving Woody Allen. As a result, I was treated to some great movies that most of my friends at the time were not privy to—for instance, I saw Au Revoir Les Enfants, Jean de Florette and My Life as a Dog in the theater multiple times, but to this day I've still never seen Top Gun. The effect was two-fold: It gave me what I consider a very valuable cinematic education, but when I ultimately went through the inevitable rebellious phase of my teenage years, I made a point to see the kind of mainstream fare (stuff like Total Recall and Die Hard) that never seemed to interest either of my parents. Nowadays I naturally take in healthy doses of everything, the indies, the imports and the blockbusters, and my mother calls constantly to solicit advice on what to see. Sometimes, as with Win Win, it works out, though I cannot say that my glowing recommendation of Hot Tub Time Machine went over particularly well in the Drake household. —Rossiter Drake, film critic
My mother comes from a family of musicians, stemming back at least as far as my great-grandfather, who played in John Philip Sousa's band in the 1920s. I grew up hearing tales of family orchestras and piano lessons given by my mom to her younger siblings. Naturally, I was offered the same training course once I could sit upright and reach the keyboard, though I remember resisting these lessons mightily. I was far less reluctant to receive another kind of musical training course she offered through cinema. The Disney revivals mom took me to see, and the classic musicals she'd bring home for us to watch on video set me, I now can recognize, on a path of music- and movie-appreciation that has lasted my entire life.
I enjoyed the fairy-tale films (whether Disney cartoons, or Charles Vidor's Hans Christen Anderson starring Danny Kaye and Farley Granger) well enough. But what really made an impression on me was an early-’80s outing to see Fantasia at some single-screen movie house (perhaps one of the Regencies.) I can still remember how Disney's dinosaurs and demons looked to my young eyes in that theatre, and just as importantly, how the Stravinsky and Schubert sounded to my young ears. The Rite of Spring, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Night on Bare Mountain and all the rest would be the first pieces of so-called ‘serious’ music that I'd become devoted to, replaying them on records until I'd memorized every note and the vinyl grooves had worn thin. Soon I would clamor to learn an orchestral instrument (the clarinet), and eventually I'd be taking composition and orchestration classes in college, and singing Mahler with a symphonic choir conducted by Kent Nagano. I've long considered my cinephilia to be an outgrowth of an even longer-standing musical obsession, but on reflection perhaps they were born at the very same moment.
Fantasia still makes me marvel, and I still enjoy watching and listening to movies with mom by my side. Penny Woolcock's 2003 adaptation of The Death of Klinghoffer at the Castro, and a Davies Hall screening of The Gold Rush with Chaplin's symphonic score performed live, are two relatively recent highlights. —Brian Darr, film journalist
My mother loved movies. She knew the name of every bit player in every movie. I learned how to sit through the credits until the very end from her. She wanted to see who played who. She'd be like, ‘That guy looks so familiar. Who is it?’ And then she'd go, ‘I knew that was so-and-so!’
We would go to the Park Theatre in Lafayette, which is still there, with our little bags of candy. She'd dole out a little baggie to each person with pieces of candy and whatever, gum, and that was a big deal. I still do the baggies thing with my own kids and grandkids, even if we go to the opera or the ballet, anywhere; I hand out the bags of candy, yeah.
As for whether as a mother I've influenced my own children, none of them are huge movie buffs. Vallejo, my oldest daughter, does not like what she calls ‘bummer films.’ She'd rather see Adam Sandler or someone like that. I don't even like those movies. She doesn't pick a documentary at the Lumiere to go to; she'd rather go to a bigger more-Hollywood film. While my two other daughters love everything. The youngest one is married to a guy from Morocco and they do watch documentaries and all sorts of films and they also go to the video store on Bernal and rent many videos. We often talk about films. The middle daughter lives in Half Moon Bay so they don't go to as many movies but they watch anything I give them, sometimes with the kids and sometimes not, depending. My grandaughter Rachel comes to a lot of films and now she has a boyfriend and she's bringing him. They like all kinds of movies too. —Karen Larsen, publicist
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