You want your Jim Beam with Mahler or Mozart?

jimbeam RIf you ask me the name of the movie I saw most recently, I probably can’t tell you. I had to look up the title of Silver Linings Playbook just now even though it was my favorite movie last year.

I remember exactly four movies from high school days:

The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke
The Longest Day with cast of thousands
Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and (who else?) Richard Burton

and a fourth which I remember nothing about except the circumstances of seeing it. My friend David had a car and a brother who was 21. The car got us to the drive-in movie theater (remember those?), and the older brother provided the pint of Jim Beam.

David told me I wouldn’t like the taste, to drink it slowly and get used to it. He had one small circumspect paper cup full that lasted him through most of the movie (whatever it was), and I drank the rest of the bottle during the opening credits and was drunk through the movie (whatever it was). I decided on the first gulp that, however awful the taste, the warmth going down and the almost immediate mellowing of my mind were worth the unpleasantness.

Perhaps the reason I still find it wearying to watch a movie by myself is that I very early on learned that movies are social as well as aesthetic events.  The culmination of that reality was in 1972 when I was the volunteer manager for the McGovern presidential campaign in Ontario, California, with direction from a pro from Massachusetts. We had an evening off to see Harold and Maude at a theater in Yorba Linda. We had some brownies with “oregano” on the drive over and during the movie. We were feeling no stress of the campaign, and when the movie finished we played Frisbee on the wide front lawn of a house close to the theater, and I stumbled over the sign announcing it was the birthplace of Richard Nixon.

I suppose my feeling 40 years later that the real purpose of seeing a movie is to eat brownies and throw a Frisbee with good friends afterwards is some kind of arrested development, or—more likely—a sign that my decades of sobriety really are more fragile than I like to think.

This writing did not begin as a contemplation on drunkenness versus sobriety or on the potential foolishness of continuing to act when you are 68 the way you did when you were 28. I intended to think and write about the sort of stuff one remembers.

For example, cute young doctor Stephen Thornton who fixed my hip last week will be forever in my mind Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker. However, I was seeing her face in my mind’s eye and thinking about that stunning scene from that movie at the water pump with Patty Duke, and calling her Patricia Neal. No one, of course, was getting my joke.

This is not (at least entirely) a function of incipient old age. I’d remember Bambi Meets Godzilla even if I hadn’t run into my high school

Mahler in Omaha.

Mahler in Omaha.

friend Harold Schneider in lobby of the Westwood Theater, but I don’t have a clue what the movie was I’d driven all that way to see (the Bambi film was a cartoon before feature as was the custom when I was a kid). I remember vaguely seeing a Julie Andrews movie on a New Year’s Eve because I remember driving home on the deserted San Bernardino Freeway at midnight with Bob and Nancy Walker (midnight on New Year’s Eve may be one of the safest times of the year to be on the highway—you’ll have the road to yourself). And so on for my entire movie-going life.

I would be surprised if I could quote one line of one movie. I have friends who can quote movies they saw 30 years ago–as well as 30 days ago.

It can’t be either lack of intelligence (well it might be) or getting old. I think it’s more a matter of paying attention. What I remember must be a function of what I pay attention to. Want to know a great experience of a symphony? Blanche Thebom singing the Mahler Kindertotenlieder with the Omaha Symphony in 1962 at the Concert Hall of the Joslyn Art Museum (where I also saw my first El Greco painting, “St. Francis in Prayer”). Another ? The Kansas City Symphony playing the Beethoven Fifth at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1965.  Another? The Boston Symphony playing Olivier Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine in 1972 with Messiaen himself conducting. The most recent? The Dallas Symphony Playing the Brahms First this past season.

I can sing themes from each of those (not to brag, but themes other  than the famous ones)—perhaps not the Messiaen.  I not only remember that concert vividly, but I was ecstatic that I had a conversation about playing the Ondes Martenot  with Jeanne Loriod, Messiaen’s sister-in-law and the premier virtuoso on that instrument, who played that night.

OK? I can remember some things. Not a single line from Victor Victoria or Mame, but themes from quite a few symphonies. A bird, a plane, a Mozart, anyone?

Miracles happen every day.

Miracles happen every day.