My dad and I saw Hard Times when I was seven years old.
It’s a Walter Hill film starring Charles Bronson as a Depression-era streetfighter and James Coburn as his manager. There’s a great quote in the film by the Strother Martin character, Poe. Poe is introduced as a fight doctor who has “two years of medical school to recommend me.” When Bronson notes that “two years don’t make a doctor,” Martin’s character explains that “during my third year, a small black cloud appeared on campus; I left under it.”
I often thought of this line during my long and well-traveled undergraduate career.
This movie also gave me one of those airtight arguments that a child yearns for when going up against an authority figure. It must have been around 1976 when I finished up watching some Kung Fu or maybe Wild Wild West on KTLA only to hear the announcement that the movie of the week that followed was intended for adult audiences and parental supervision was advised. I was on the floor in front of the TV and Dad called from the dining room table, “C’mon Rube, you heard the man. You probably shouldn’t be watching that, should you?” When I offered that he and I had watched it in the theater together last year, he sheepishly smiled and agreed that Bronson was really good and gave me his best Coburn laugh.
Allow me to write here about the films that we saw together or that I associate with him. Please forgive me my indulgence. But do place some of these on your queue as they all have their charms.
My dad was thrifty. I understood stashing the cans of Lady Lee Lemon Lime soda or Cragmont cola into our pockets and opening them during scenes featuring gunshots, but I was a little embarrassed to pop the popcorn at home and smuggle it in under our jackets in a brown paper bag.
I was a huge fan of Enter The Dragon. I would draw picture after picture of Bruce Lee at home and Dad eventually succumbed to my desire for karate lessons. I also loved the story he told me much later of how the young Mexican girls in the 1950’s would speak in a sing-song accent about how he was “so handsome, like John Sax-on.”
Clearly, action movies from my youth are given special prominence here, but let me also throw out some influential films from more recent years.
Bad Lieutenant did a number on me. I was having issues with a lot of people, Dad included, and it was like Abel Ferrara and Harvey Keitel wrote a textbook for self-absorbed, guilt-ridden cineastes. Lapsed Catholic? Check. Self-control issues? Check. Want to be redeemed? Sure, count me in. Plus, for all of you sports bettors/angry drivers out there, I dare you to match the wish fulfillment of the scene when he pulls out a gun and shoots his car radio when the score of the Mets game goes the wrong way.
I used to wear a Bad Lieutenant t-shirt back then. I wanted others to think it was a provocation, but it was more like a call for help. Not surprisingly, this did not bring the kind of support that I required.
From around this time period, I also remember Highway Patrolman, a film Alex Cox made in Mexico fraught with yet more father-son dramatic tension.
This was also the time when I would use movie quotes on my answering machine. I hesitate to admit how much time I spent getting these cued up just right. Dad played along for awhile until he felt that I was avoiding him. A long exchange between Holden and Borgnine from The Wild Bunch was the deal breaker for him, but what was I supposed to do? Had I learned the wrong lessons after all?
We were so close when I was a young teen, trying to make up in many ways for the years of a sad divorce, that carving out a new way for us to get along as adults was difficult.
I remember him asking me to bring by one of the samurai films that I had been studying and writing about in school. I brought by the videotape and then was off to see my girlfriend. He was clearly agitated: “I wanted to watch it with you Rube; I can rent this by myself anytime.”
I left anyway.
After I got it together, I showed Dad how far I had come by inviting him and his girlfriend out to the movies. Real classy adult gesture, except that the film I chose was another Ferrara, Dangerous Game. Yes, that’s right, what is more commonly referred to as “that Madonna film.” Not the smoothest move but, hey, look what I watched growing up.
Dad says I laughed so hard during the opening of The Longest Yard that I almost fell out of my seat in the theatre. During the car chase, Burt was drinking a cocktail, finished it, and then tossed the glass in the backseat. Now that, my friends, is cool.
For some reason, Gator sticks in my mind as well. Reading the character names, I think I understand why. Burt, who directed as well (!), plays Gator McKlusky and Lauren Hutton plays Aggie Maybank. I remember that there is this great scene where he rigs a motel room wall heater to blow up on the bad guys.
But sad to say that the Reynolds film that sticks out for Dad and me was Hooper. There’s just something so pure about hiring your former student coordinator, Hal Needham, to direct your movie. Again, hitting the jackpot in terms of character names is Jan Michael Vincent’s Ski Chinski, the young hotshot out to usurp Sonny Hooper’s title as the greatest stuntman alive.
That’s right, the same Jan Michael Vincent who was the apprentice hitman in Bronson’s The Mechanic.
Did I mention that Dad had the ‘stache to end all moustaches at the time?
But I digress.
The quote that stuck with me from Hooper (pause to consider that statement for a moment) was when Burt explains a bit of capitalist philosophy that I still struggle with. When Ski fears doing a dangerous car stunt and says that his life is worth more than a piece of film, Hooper says, “I’ll tell you exactly what your life is worth. Your life if worth fifty thousand dollars — that’s the price you put on it when you got behind this wheel!”
When we watched Rocky at the Belmont Theater, I got so excited that I punched him in the ribs throughout the entire final fight scene.
But what about Eastwood, you ask? Don’t worry, I can quote most of Magnum Force (script by Cimino and Milius, mind you) by heart, but that is mostly from watching it as the constantly replayed weekend movie during my years working at a sporting goods store. And the death scene from Joe Kidd? I would reach inside my jacket and stare at my hand that in fact wasn’t covered with blood and do the fall over and over again until Dad had to tell me to quit it.
Milius also was a writer and/or director for four other of our favorites, the surreal Newman western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Redford as alienated mountain man in Jeremiah Johnson, Sean Connery as Moroccan bandit and Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt in The Wind and the Lion, and Conan the Barbarian (with a script by Oliver Stone). We saw Conan at the long-since-demolished Circle Drive-In, a poor choice because of how dark much of the lighting of the film itself is but a winner in terms of bringing in as much food and drink as we liked.
Our Clint high point, besides going to the Hog Breath’s Inn in Carmel just to soak up the vibe, was a double bill of Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can. I got tired just writing those titles. The plot involved yet another laconic streetfighter but is likely best known as the movies with the orangutan.
We saw that at the Paradise Theater, a place in Long Beach that used to show later run movies, often double features, for bargain prices. I cannot imagine what the other film would have been on the bill, but I also remember seeing Love and Death with him there. This is notable because Dad had a stated aversion to Woody Allen for many years, so how we ended up watching a farce on Russian literature is beyond me. Woody, as you might have guessed, pushed my Dad’s buttons as a guy too willing to wallow in his nerdy persona. Dad outgrew his desire to “punch that little pipsqueak right in the nose,” but to this day I definitely think of Mom as my introduction to all things Woody.
I haven’t misrepresented Dad, but I am having fun by only presenting part of the picture.
He wasn’t really what I would call a movie guy. He was an artist and a teacher, who played many sports and was always active. And action was not his only genre. Dad would laugh out loud at Mel Brooks. He would describe the way a leaf would float in the water in a Japanese film that he couldn’t name. He loved Almovodar’s colors and composition, and had more of a tolerance for French whimsy than I do. There was one movie about a cat that he kept enthusing about but just couldn’t place. Dad had a great memory for movie lines but a poor one for names; he was often off by just enough, John Travalota, for example, that I would need to translate.
He would ask me for a review of literally everything I would watch and always have a thoughtful question or reference to another film or two at the ready. Dad would call up before his weekend movie date and ask me what looked interesting. He didn’t always go see what I would recommend, and who can blame him after Dangerous Game, but he read a lot of reviews and always had an idea of what was right for him. My latest pick for him was Children of Men; he mentioned something that was so right on about Mexican directors and said he would likely give it a shot.
His own moviegoing youth was not like mine at all. His father passed away when he was only 12 years old. He would go with his friends to the theater in Wilmington to see the Tarzan movies and serials like Flash Gordon. And yes, we did see the remake with the Queen soundtrack and Max Von Sydow, fresh from playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal, as Ming the Merciless. This fondness for the comic book heroes of his youth must have enabled him to sit through Ron Ely as Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze in 1975, but I have no idea how he was able to give in to my insistence that we watch it a second time. Although now that I think about it, I have a pretty good idea why.
He was just being a good dad.
He took my kids to see their first movie, Curious George.
The last movie that Ruben Sr. saw was Blood Diamond on Saturday, January 6th.
I miss him very much.