Did you ever notice that some movies are like a time machine? And I mean very much like Rod Taylor’s contraption. You step into the movie, and it transports you instantly to another place and time—where you were when you saw it and how old you were, and you reconnect with your sensibilities back then and can feel who was sitting next to you at the theater. You can see the room if you were watching it on TV and remember your self back then. Who you were and what the world was like.
As the years pass this happens to me more and more. For example, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a Universal horror B-picture released in 1943, isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright bad, with plot inconsistencies to give you a headache and some questionable casting. But it’s my favorite because every time I see the Universal logo and hear the fanfare, I’m 10 again and staying up late to watch Chiller Theatre on WIIC in Pittsburgh Saturday night at 11:30, after the news. What a struggle it was to stay awake back then after marauding through town all day and playing hours of baseball in any pick-up game I could find.
I never did get to see House of Frankenstein as a kid because I’d always manage to fall asleep. What I remember about House of Frankenstein is imagining how spooky it was as my friends (made of sterner stuff) stayed awake all the way through and described the horrific goings-on. But I must have made it through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man at least once for the memories it evokes of the living room in the house where I grew up, a place long ago demolished. The living room and being alone in the dark watching the TV and wondering if the Wolf Man was going to bound down the stairs and tear me apart.
Watching The Sting takes me back to Cuppies Drive-In and watching the screen over my dad’s right shoulder and my mom’s left and through a windshield, with the tinny sound of a speaker attached to the driver’s-side window. The Sting shoots me into their world, and I feel my parents as they absorb the time and place—the 1930s during the Depression when they were young. I have to credit the accuracy of the time period recreated during production of The Sting in 1972 because my parents never had the spell broken by something inappropriate to the 1930s. They loved The Sting. In fact, they loved the movies, which is where I caught the bug. That fact makes the time machine experience of particular movies bittersweet because for fleeting minutes they’re alive again and in their prime and then, poof, gone. And here you are, alone, murmuring, “Damn.” For a little while it’s as if you could reach out and touch them as we all sat at the drive-in watching The Sting. The time machine is that powerful a piece of mental machinery.
I still can’t watch JFK because I saw it with my friend Tom during a dark time in my life, as a relationship was falling apart. Those were black, black days and seeing any reference to JFK picks me up and tosses me back into the pit of despair; better to walk a wide circle around that one. I remember my good friend John telling me a similar story about breaking up with his girlfriend at the time Gray Lady Down was released. He told me this a couple of decades ago, but I bet he still can’t stand to watch Gray Lady Down, and I get it.
Why is it that those long-ago movie experiences made such an impression? I can remember more recent pictures seen in theater settings that don’t result in the same time transport. I guess it all ended with Star Wars—every time I see that distinctive title screen and hear the first note of John Williams’ fanfare, it’s 1977 all over again and a new world of adventure opens. I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it. I was right there at the vanguard and saw Star Wars in first run six times in the spring and summer of 1977, and every time I’ve seen it since, that’s where I am, at the Showcase East in Monroeville queueing up. Just a kid. I remember reading about Star Wars and this evil character named Darth Vader and thinking, “No, he’s too scary. What if I can’t handle it?” I could imagine myself running screaming from the theater. But I hung tough and made it all the way through Star Wars and can reconnect with my youthful self by sitting down and popping in a Blu-Ray. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that.
I can’t be alone, right? So what are your time-machine movies and where do they take you?