Monday, October 15, 2007

The Way We Were -- 6th Anniversary

It's my sixth wedding anniversary.

At my suggestion, my wife and I watched the Sidney Pollack's 1973 film starring Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand, The Way We Were. It's one of my all-time favorite films from back in the days when Detroit's Channel 50 Eight O'Clock Movie played each weeknight. The film has one of the most poignant openings I've ever seen, with Streisand singing that gorgeous theme. Hearing "Memories" puts me in mind of my parents getting drunk on Friday nights when I was a kid -- both teachers; no headbands or bongos or quirky little pipes -- listening to their Simon and Garfunkel records, the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof, and a Streisand greatest hits album; back in the days of our small living room hearth where real fire fed on real logs from actual trees. My dad smoking his pipe, my mom with her Cameos, the living room lit with those wonderfully dim and moody 1970s lamps. The weddings of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were not so hopelessly long in the past, or Jackie Kennedy reborn as Jackie O.; a young man named Julius Erving was exploding the American Basketball Association with 40-plus-point games; the tragedies of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or even John F. Kennedy, not yet completely like amber worn down by water.

Seeing The Way We Were -- particularly some of the New York scenes -- really put me in mind of the 1970s, and not in a superficial 70s-chique sort of way, but thinking of the audiences who saw that film at the cinema, back in the days when the world seemed to close like a coffin lid each night, with networks signing off for the night, leaving insomniacs to panic over nonsensical test patterns on TV screens. There was no Internet, no video games -- and Pong doesn't count; a few minutes of that after midnight would be nearly enough to give even the pillar of the community the screaming meemies -- not even any readily available VCRs. Back when news of the world came from Walter Cronkite or actual newspapers. Saturday Night Live was still two years in the future; not yet fending off the night chills until a nearly-unheard-of one a.m.. Back when there were about five or six channels on the television. No need for a remote control because one channel was as good as another -- no one was missing anything. That was back when Henry Winkler was apt to come on TV during a commercial break to tell everyone that graffiti was definitely not cool, or Ella Fitzgerald might show up in a public service announcement asking you to be sure to use the new ZIP code number system on your letters -- because, with the price of long distance telephone calls in those days, people wrote letters to one another. Back in the days when CBS would announce on Friday nights, in between programs, "It's eight o'clock. Do you know where your children are?"

Back around 1973 and environs.

And the bane of television programs at that time, for anyone sorry enough to be up early on a Sunday morning: psychedelic religious shows like Insight, in which religion collided with The Twilight Zone.

When I was a teenager, my grandmother told me that she had seen The Way We Were with my uncle and aunt, and how mortified she had been during the scene when Streisand's character takes a drunken Robert Redford home and he passes out in her bed, and she slips naked between the sheets next to him. Poor Grandma St. Amand, who smoked cigars on occasion and carried wash baskets the size of Volkswagens, with her wavering, wounded, martyred, "O-o-o-o-h," whenever she saw me with long hair or trying to grow a beard. By 1973, her two sons were married and all of her grandchildren had been born. Picturing her sitting there in the Royal Theatre with my aunt and uncle, all of them squirming in their seats suffering the basest discomfort at the sight of that nice little Jewish girl getting into bed with Robert Redford, fills me with a laughter that only surfaces when I'm confronted by a Monty Python skit.

I was two years old in 1973, but I have fleeting memories of that time. I recall my mother having a colleague from Children's Aid over to the house. He was a priest who looked like Gene Shallot; huge head of frizzy black hair, large black mustachio and black-framed glasses. I remember the wild plaid patterns of my dad's suit pants. I remember a woman on public television -- after Sesame Street and the Electric Company (on which a young Morgan Freeman was a regular) -- who had a ponytail down to her waist, leading yoga sessions. I remember one evening in our basement, looking at my dad sitting in his battered, leather reclining chair -- he wore brown pajama bottoms and a wife-beater shirt -- and thinking quite clearly to myself, "Dad is 34." But that was April 1974.

Somewhere in his novel V, Thomas Pynchon says that all people have a deep ingrained longing for the decade in which they were born. I'm 36, and every once in a while I'm reminded that there are people who think that's old. Maybe it is. Next week I'm going to Warren, Michigan to see Don Rickles perform live. A colleague at work said that she had never heard of Don Rickles. My colleague is under 30, so I'm not terribly surprised. I still recall when I first experienced Rickles -- when he hosted Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s.

"I was born in 1980," my colleague told me, "So, I was about three or four when you saw that SNL."

Maybe I was a strange kid, but early on I knew that being born into this world was like surfacing in a moving river -- I inherently understood that there were events of great import that predated my existence and I was curious to find out about them. One of the first bits of history that enthralled me was the Woodstock art and musical festival of 1969. There was a Detroit program on Friday evenings when I was a kid hosted by a local personality named John Kelly. I forget the name of the show, but it's opening song was Barbara Streisand's "Memories," and the word "yesteryear" was used quite a bit. As a kid of seven or eight years I was aware of rock 'n' roll -- hell, I watched reruns of The Monkee's on TV -- and understood the concept of rock concerts, but I couldn't get my head around the idea of a concert lasting three whole days -- actually, I've read that it ran Friday, Saturday, Sunday and well into Monday (that's when Jimi Hendrix played: Monday morning to about 20,000 people), so that's virtually four days. For some reason, my parents didn't like me asking about Woodstock. Neither had attended the event, or even knew people who had, but they responded to my questions regarding it as though I was asking about a Witches Sabbath or something. But I was enthralled when John Kelly's half-hour program focused on it one Friday night.

The next bit of history I hit upon was the Charles Manson killings -- I found a copy of Vincent Bugliosi's book, Helter Skelter, on our bookshelf among the James Michener novels and World Book encyclopedias from 1964. My folks well and truly freaked when they saw me thumbing through Helter Skelter and the book quickly disappeared from the house.

So, with the ghost of Grandma St. Amand cringing in the background, my wife and I watched The Way We Were. My wife liked the film, but proclaimed it very sad when it was finished. I guess it was, but it was still a wonderful journey.

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