Tom Engelhardt: How the Movies Saved My Life
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published momentarily. This piece first appeared in slightly different form in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Every childhood has its own geography and every child is an explorer, as daring as any Peary or Amundsen or Scott. I was the mildest of children, such a picky eater that my parents called me a “quince” (a fruit sour enough, they insisted, to make your face pucker, as mine did when challenged by any food out of the ordinary). I was neither a daredevil nor a chance-taker, and by my teens scorned myself for being so boringly on the straight and narrow. I never raced a car, or mocked a cop, or lit out for the territories.
Still, by the luck of the draw, as a child of the 1950s, I was plunged into a landscape more exotic than most American kids could then have imagined. It was still devastated by war, populated to a startling extent by present and former enemies, and most amazingly, the Germans, Japanese, Italians, and Russians (not to speak of the French and English) I encountered there were thrillingly alive in a way everything in my life told me we Americans weren’t.
Let me explain, geographically speaking and as personally as I can. I grew up at 40 East 58th Street, just off Madison Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan, two blocks from the Plaza Hotel, where Eloise got her hair cut. Apartment 6D—“as in David,” we always said.
My parents moved there in 1946, just after World War II. It was two doors down from the Plaza movie theater, and getting to 6D was an exotic affair. You exited a small, gated elevator into a modest-sized corridor, apartments on either side, only to find yourself on a catwalk in the open air looking down on what might have been the low roofs of Paris. A stroll along that catwalk and a right turn into another corridor got you to our rent-controlled duplex with its living-room skylight under which my mother—“New York’s girl caricaturist,” as she was known in the gossip columns of the war years—regularly set up her easel. My room was upstairs.
The fifties are now recalled as a golden age when Americans, white ones anyway, burst into the suburbs, while all the consumerist gratifications deferred by the Great Depression and World War II were sated. It was the age of the television set (“Bigger screen… Brighter picture… Better reception”) and pop-up toasters, of Frigidaires and freezers big enough “for the whole family” (“holds 525 pounds!”), of “extension” phones, wonder of wonders, (“I just couldn’t get along without my kitchen telephone”), and cigarettes so “soothing to the nerves” that doctors and baseball players alike were proud to endorse them.
With good jobs and rising wages in a still war-battered world, the United States stood so much taller than the rest of the planet, manufacturing the large items of the peaceable life (cars, above all) and the advanced weaponry of war, often in the same dominant corporations. It was a world in which Bell Telephone, that purveyor of extension phones, could also run upbeat ads aimed at boys extolling its weapons work. (As one began: “Chip Martin, college reporter, sees a ‘talking brain’ for guided missiles... ‘Glad to see you, Chip. Understand you want to find out how our Air Force can guide a warhead a quarter of the way around the world. Well, look here...’”)
Inexpensive gas, cheap well-marbled steaks, and reliable warheads that might end life as we knew it—that seems like a reasonable summary of the obvious in American life in those years. And if you were a kid and wanted more, Hollywood was there to deliver: it was a time when, on screen, the Marines always advanced before the movie ended, and the sound of a bugle meant the bluecoats were coming to save the day. It was the moment when, for the first time in history, teenagers had money in their pockets and could begin to spend it on clothes, records, and other entertainment, propelling the country into a new age in which the Mad Men of that era would begin advertising directly to them.
Bad Times in an American Golden Age
I knew that world, of course, even if our little “icebox,” which iced over easily, was no Frigidaire. Living in the middle of Manhattan, I could catch the all-American-ness of life by taking a three-block walk to the RKO 58th Street movie theater at the corner of Third Avenue where, popcorn in hand, I’d settle in for a double-feature version of the world as it was supposed to be.
There, too, I could regularly see my father’s war. Like so many of those we now call “the greatest generation,” he was silent on the subject of his war experience (except for rare rants about “war profiteers” and “the Japs”), but that mattered little. After all, what did he have to say when the movies taught me everything I needed to know about what he had done in his war?
Because the then-liberal rag the New York Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings (being broadcast live on ABC), we got a TV for the first time in April 1954. Of course, the sitcoms I was allowed to watch, like Hollywood’s war films, Westerns, and comedies, had a remarkable tendency to end tidily and on an upbeat note. Unlike movies about my father’s war, however, I had something to compare those sitcoms to and, much as I loved Father Knows Best, it bore not the slightest resemblance to anything my hard-pressed mother, angry father, and I were living out. In it, I could find no hint of the messy psychic geography of my own childhood.
For my nuclear family in those first years of the nuclear age, it was bad times all the way. In the middle years of the decade, my father, a salesman, was out of work and drinking heavily; my mother brought home “the bacon” (really, that’s the way they spoke about it then), which—I have her account book from those years—was excessively lean. They were struggling to keep up the appearance of a middle-class life while falling ever more deeply into debt. The fights about “Tommy’s doctor bill” or “Tommy’s school bill” began as soon as they thought I was asleep.
Among my most vivid memories was creeping out into the light of the hall, propping myself up by the stairs and listening, mesmerized, as my parents went at it below with startling verbal violence. Think of that as my first perch as a future writer.
Like most kids in most places, I assumed then that my life, including such eternally angry nights, was the way it was for everyone. My problems, as I saw it, didn’t actually begin until I stepped out onto 58th Street, where, as far as I could tell, a landscape strangely empty of interest stretched as far as the eye could see.
If America then sat atop the world, triumphant and alone, the blandness that aloneness bred, a kind of unnaturally fearful uniformity of everything, is difficult today to conjure up or even describe. At the time, though, I hardly understood why the world I was being promised struck me as so dull. I thought it was me. And above all, I didn’t have a clue when or how this would end and life, whatever that was, would begin.
Feeling “Foreign” in Fifties America
Fortunately for me, geography came to my rescue. My street, was—no hyperbole here—unique at that moment. You could have traveled a fair distance in 1950s America, hundreds or possibly thousands of miles, without stumbling upon a movie house dedicated to “foreign films,” and yet between Sixth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, in fewer than three and a half city blocks, I had three of them—the Paris just west of Fifth Avenue, the Plaza by my house, and between Park and Lexington, the Fine Arts.
You would no more have wondered about why they were clustered there than why your parents duked it out each night. And yet how strange that was in a still remarkably white bread and parochial American world. Immigration, remember, had largely been shut down by act of Congress in 1924 (see, for example, the Asian Exclusion Act) and America’s doors didn’t begin to open again until the early 1950s. In a time when you can get bagels in El Paso and Thai, Japanese, or Mexican food in Anytown, USA, it’s hard to remember just how rare the “foreign” in “foreign films” once was. In that earlier era of American fear and hysteria, that word and the dreaded phrase “Communist influence” were linked.
And so, to enter the darkness of one of those theaters and be suddenly transported elsewhere on Earth, to consort with the enemy and immerse yourself in lives that couldn’t have seemed more alien (or attractive), under more empathetic circumstances—well, that was not a common experience. Think of those movie houses not simply as one confused and unhappy teenage boy’s escape hatch from the world, but as Star Trekian-style wormholes into previously unsuspected parallel universes that happened to exist on planet Earth.
By the time I was thirteen, the manager of the Plaza had taken a shine to me and was letting me into any movie I cared to see. A Taste of Honey (a coming-of-age story about a working-class English girl—Rita Tushingham with her soulful eyes—impregnated by a black sailor and cared for by a gay man), Alan Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (a film of unparalleled murkiness, notable for a matchstick game the unnamed characters play that caused a minor cocktail party craze in its day), Billy Liar (a chance to fall in love with the young Julie Christie as a free spirit), Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (a medieval tale of rape and revenge)—it didn’t matter. I seldom had the slightest idea what I was walking into, and in that Internet-less world there was no obvious place to find out, nor was there anyone to guide me through those films or tell me what I should think, which couldn’t have been more disorienting or glorious.
On any afternoon I might suddenly be French or Russian or—weirdest of all for a Jewish kid living in New York City—German. Each film was a shock all its own, a deep dive into some previously unimagined world. If I needed confirmation that these movies were from another universe, it was enough that, in an era of glorious Technicolor, they were still obdurately and inexplicably black and white, every one of them. What more evidence did I need that foreigners inhabited another planet?
The actors in those films, unlike Hollywood’s, existed on a remarkably human scale. Sometimes, they even fought as fiercely and messily as my parents and they had genuinely bad times, worse than anything I had yet imagined. Above all—a particularly un-American trait in the movies then—everything did not always end for the best.
In fact, however puzzlingly, sometimes those films didn’t seem to end at all, at least not in the way I then understood endings. As in the last frozen, agonizing, ecstatic image of a boy’s face in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (which I didn’t see until college), it was easy to imagine that almost anything might happen within moments of such “endings,” that life would go on—which was, for me, completely unexpected at the movies.
And don’t forget that these films made you work. Except for the British movies, there were always subtitles, exotic in themselves, which made them seem like so many illustrated novels. And here was the strangest thing: that black-and-white world you had to read to decipher had an uncanny ability to suck the color out of Manhattan.
And those films offered history lessons capable of turning what I thought I knew upside down. In my American world, for instance, the atomic bomb was everywhere, just not in clearly recognizable form. If you went to the RKO to catch Them! or This Island Earth, for instance, you could see the bomb and its effects, after a fashion, via fantasies about radioactive mutant monsters and alien superweapons. Still, you could grow up in 1950s America, as I did, without ever learning much or seeing a thing about what two actual atomic bombs had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki—unless, that is, your local movie theater happened to show Alain Resnais’s 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour (scripted by the novelist Marguerite Duras).
Under the Mushroom Cloud
But before I go on, a caveat. Perhaps the reason memoirs are so often written by the young these days is that, once you reach a certain age, only fiction might allow you to truly make your way back to childhood. I have not the slightest doubt that those hours in the dark profoundly affected my life, and yet I find it difficult indeed to conjure the boy who first slipped into those movie houses on his own. Much of the time, it seems to me, he belongs to someone else’s novel, someone else’s life.
Trying to make my way back to whatever he thought when he first saw those films, I feel like an archeologist digging in the ruins of my own life. When I view the same films today, I sometimes get a chill of recognition and I’m still won over, but often I wonder just what he saw in them. What in the world could my teenage self have thought while watching Hiroshima Mon Amour, parts of which—apologies to Duras and Resnais—are unbearably pretentious? (“You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing... Hiroshima, that’s your name...”)
A film about a one-night stand between a French actress making a “peace” movie in the rebuilt city of Hiroshima (who had once loved a German soldier in wartime France and paid the price), and a married Japanese architect who had been in the army in World War II while his family lived (and perhaps died) in that city—what did I make of that? What did I know? There was flesh to be seen, however obliquely, in bed, in the shower—and back then that was something. But there were also those dismally incantatory lines from Duras.
Here’s what I don’t doubt, though: that film gave me a gut-level primer in nuclear politics and nuclear destruction available nowhere else in my world. No mutant monsters, spaceships, or alien superweapons, just grainy, graphic glimpses of the victims from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and of other “victims” being made up—burn patterns and keloids being painted on bodies—for the actress’s antinuclear “peace” movie, the film within the film.
It was there that I watched my first antinuclear demonstration—again for that other movie—as protesters marched by with signs that offered a little lesson in atomic politics and some basic information about nuclear weapons. Above all, I was, however briefly, taken under the mushroom cloud to see something then essentially taboo in this country: the real results of our “victory weapon,” of what we had done to them, of my father’s war as I would never otherwise have seen it.
If the scenes of the two lovers titillated me, those brief glimpses under that cloud haunted me. Certainly, the dreams I had in those years, in which the bomb went off over a distant city while a blast of heat seared my body, or I found myself wandering through some bleak, atomically blasted landscape, owed something to that film.
Like all of us, I wonder what made me the way I am. What left me, as a book editor, able to slip inside the skin of someone else’s words? What gave me, as a critic, the distance to see our world askew? What made me, never having been in the military, create a website that focuses a critical eye on the American way of war?
There are, of course, no answers to such questions, just guesses. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that those hours in the dark had something to do with it. I wouldn’t be focused on a movie I can now barely watch if I wasn’t convinced that it had a hand in sending me, as a book editor, on my own Hiroshima journey. (In 1979, I would publish in translation a Japanese book, Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which, I believe, was the first time any sizable number of images of the experience under Hiroshima’s mushroom cloud made it into mainstream American culture.)
Consorting With the Enemy
Compare all this to the war I saw at my local RKO, the one John Wayne led, the one in which the highly decorated Audie Murphy played himself on-screen mowing down Germans by the score. And then, right down the block, there was the other war I sat in on, the one our enemies fought, the one that lacked my father. As a boy, I was undoubtedly typical in imagining the defeat of Hitler as essentially an American triumph in Europe—until, that is, I walked into the Fine Arts and saw Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying.
Part of a post-Stalinist cinematic breakout moment, its heroine and hero, Veronica and Boris, are young, in love, filmed at arty angles, and in the movie’s early scenes might as well be frolicking on the banks of the Seine. But that mood only lasts until the Nazis invade. Boris volunteers for the army and, finding himself and his unit in a swamp surrounded by Germans, dies heroically but miserably in the mud. The news of his death never reaches the waiting Veronica in Moscow, who goes into shock on finding her apartment destroyed and her parents dead from a German air raid, is raped (so the film implies) in that state during another air raid by Boris’s cousin, a pianist and draft evader, and grimly marries him… and that’s hardly halfway into the film.
There is also the child Veronica saves from being run over just as she’s about to commit suicide, who also turns out to be named Boris. Yes, call it an absurd war melodrama, but it was also passionately filled to the brim with mud, fire, overcrowded living quarters, rooms full of wounded soldiers, slackers, and high-livers in a panorama of wartime Russia.
Grim, shocking, and above all youthful, it was the Russian film that not only took Europe by storm and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958, but took me by storm as well. The Russians—the Reds, the Commies—were then our mortal enemies. So imagine my surprise on discovering, up close and personal, that they had fought a monumental, terrible war against the Nazis, and that they couldn’t have been more human—or winning.
A year or two later, I would watch Ballad of a Soldier, another Russian war film, this time about a kid hardly older than I was then who gets a six-day pass from the front for wiping out a couple of German tanks (in a paroxysm of fear). In an odyssey through a devastated landscape—city buildings blasted, trains blown up, bridges down, amputees visible—he makes his way home just in time to greet his mother, kiss her goodbye, and head back to the front (where, you’ve learned as the film begins, he dies). You simply could not see such films and hate the Russians.
Then, on the theme of teenagers at war, there was The Bridge, a fierce 1959 antiwar film directed by Bernhard Wicki that genuinely shocked me, perhaps as much because I found myself identifying with those German boy soldiers as by the brutality of the fighting into which they were plunged. In the last days of World War II, a group of small-town, high-spirited high school classmates, no older than I was then, are ushered hurriedly into the army, given the briefest training, and (while Nazi officials flee) rushed to a bridge of absolutely no significance to stop advancing American tanks.
They are patriotic and absurdly eager to defend their town and country. All but one of them die for nothing, as does an American trying to convince them to stop fighting. (“We don’t fight kids!” he yells before one of them shoots him.) The film ends on these words, which then chilled me to the bone: “This happened on April 27, 1945. It was so unimportant that it was not mentioned in any war communiqué.”
To see that war through German eyes, even briefly, was to enter forbidden territory. Nonetheless, those boys were, to me, as unnervingly human as the French pilot in Serge Bourguignon’s 1962 film Sundays and Cybele, suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder after killing a child in the French version of the Vietnam War. Back in Paris, he strikes up an “innocent” relationship with a 12-year-old girl (which, I can now see, had surprisingly sexual overtones), is mistaken for someone out to kill her, and shot dead by the police, the sight of which passes his trauma on to her.
These films and others like them gave me a space apart where I was privileged to absorb secrets no one in my world knew (which, to a lost teen, was nothing less than life preserving). They confirmed in me a sense that the world was not as we were told, nor was ours the single most exceptional way of living on Earth.
Like that perch by the stairs above my parents’ fights, those films helped turn me into a critic—of Hollywood certainly, of our American world more generally, and of my own world more specifically. And the space they opened for a child who despaired of himself (and the triumphalist American future everyone assured him was rightfully his) would prove useful decades later.
After all, I now write about our American wars without ever having visited a war zone—except, of course, in the movies. There, in the 1950s and early 1960s, I advanced with the Marines and the Russians, bombed Tokyo but also experienced (however briefly) Hiroshima after it was atomized. I took out panzers, but for two hours one afternoon was a German boy waiting to die at a bridge of no significance as American tanks bore down on him.
So let me now, for the first time, offer a small bow of gratitude to Alain Resnais, Mikhail Kalatozov, Serge Bourguignon, Bernhard Wicki, François Truffaut, and all the others I met at the movies so long ago who turned my world inside out. You saved my life.
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