The year is 1932. I’m thirteen years old
and sitting in a nearby movie theater.
Preparations are being made outside
for the parade. Huge picture faces
of the movie stars are flashing
on the screen. I’ve skipped school
and anxious I might run into someone
who will tell my mother. The theater
is an old one smelling of stale
tobacco smoke. It has wooden seats
that creak at the slightest change
of position. I’ve seen a rat there
once run across the stage. I know
nothing about the movie except
that is has an intriguing title.
I don’t recognize the names
of the actors or the director.
But as everyone knows,
we sometimes fall in love
with a movie from the first image.
The Image Hunter
It’s early morning in some American city,
over the low rooftops of a row of commercial
buildings I can see a bridge, and in the distance
a blurred dog. The camera angle is very odd.
It’s as if someone is holding it up.
A car passes the dog with its radio
blasting. Next we see a tall man
with a hat on and the brim pulled
over his eyes. The camera follows
him into a luncheonette. A hunchback
is seated at the counter. He’s reading
the newspaper and looking like a tough
stranger. At that moment, another hunchback
walks in and asks what time it is.
The Mystery Of Presence
I have seen American movies before —
westerns, musicals, costume dramas,
comedies, even a few tearjerkers
with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis,
but I never wanted one of them to end
as much as I wanted this one too. What gripped me
wasn’t so much the film but the desolate streets
with their elongated shadows, the windows
with their slatted blinds, the cracked
pavements, the stained walls, and the feel
of danger everywhere. All cities overlap.
American movies about rural small town life
scare me more than Frankenstein films.
I prefer trash-strewn subways, tenements
with fire escapes, children
playing baseball in the street,
tough guys in nightclubs,
and downtown walks on a Saturday night.
You Can’t Keep A Good Sonnet Down
This movie was lost on me because of the subtitles,
but I remember a woman saying to me once
that the night sounded like a soul in hell.
I usually hurried off after I saw a movie
to tell my friends about it. But I found myself
at a loss for words about this one. I had no
vocabulary to explain how people who had been
so photographed in the most ordinary moments
could be so real, how the camera framed their faces
and seemed so close they were alive. When I tried
to describe that, people had no idea what
I was talking about, or why. And neither
did I. I was trying to explain how the film
viewed the characters. These ordinary folks
trying to make a living. I was confronted
by the movie’s underlying message:
there is no getting around bad luck.
After we run out of money for the jukebox,
we drop a handful of coins on the table
and watch the pretty girl walk away.
Divine, Superfluous Beauty
Going over the scene in my mind,
America becomes a real place for me.
When I arrive in New York three years later
on a hot afternoon in August, not only the skyline
but the city with its traffic and crowds
seems so familiar to me. Once the night falls,
and we take a walk in the emptying midtown streets,
the movie I saw comes back to me. And what happened
to me at the end. The moment I left midtown and drifted
a few blocks east or west. One found crowded
tenements where old people took out their chairs,
and children played on the streets. Right before
my eyes was that intangible thing I could not name,
divine, superfluous beauty. When it came to big truths,
that part of my life had been settled for me.
But the little truths I was still struggling with.