Steve McQueen, My Mother, and Me, 1973

Papillon Poster

The World’s Greatest Movie Theatre: My Mother’s Kitchen Table

I tell stories. For a significant portion of my life, I worked—with varying degrees of success—in the film and television industry. I don’t live or work in New York City or Hollywood any longer. Now I live in a rainforest and teach others—up-and-coming screenwriters, at the University of British Columbia, mostly—to tell their stories. I say their stories because, let’s be clear, every story you tell is really a story about you. This one, right here, is no exception.

Like I said, I tell stories. I’m pretty good at it. But I’ve had a lot of practice at it. And I’ve had some damn good teachers. I was lucky enough to go to film school at NYU and, yes, as might be expected, there were some damn fine teachers there. But I also had the kind of education where I was being taught how to tell stories when I didn’t even realize it. Take, for example, the lessons I received every Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 5pm to 6pm on Channel 11’s broadcast of The Twilight Zone reruns. That channel ran those 156 episodes every weekend for years and you can bet your ass that I watched every single one of them—several times now. What I thought was just killing time on the couch, was really getting writing lessons from teachers like Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson.

Then, of course, were the myriad of other secret teachers I was exposed to when I scraped up enough money to go to the movie house every weekend. David Lean, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, just to name a few, were my silent teachers, there, in that beat-up small town theater. And how—seriously, how?—could I imagine on that summer night in 1987, enthralled by a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, that within a year, I would be working as one of his assistants, in an office at Warner Brothers Pictures, sending him story research material—having a ringside seat into his process, confirming, firsthand, his eccentricities, his exacting methods, his genius?

My mother. That’s who.

Okay, let’s go back a few years…

When I was a young boy, in the early 1970s, I lived, for a time, in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. While this, now, has a bit of an exotic twang to it—even to me—it wasn’t strange to me then; I was, like my parents, European born, so this just seemed like another European city where people spoke French, Luxembourgish, German, and, in my school, English. I had lived previously in Italy (where my mother and I were born) and in Germany (where my father was born.) I won’t bother you with the backstory as to why we were in Luxembourg (my father worked for NATO), but Luxembourg felt like what it was: a small metropolitan city with a large English-speaking ex-pat community, mostly of Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia, and the U.K. with some Americans thrown in for flavour. It felt like—I would come to realize later—a smaller version of a typical U.K. city like London or Leeds, but with a distinct emphasis on old architecture.

Luxembourg Postcard

I had a pretty normal childhood for a kid in Europe in the early 1970s—even in Luxembourg. I went to a British private school and it was everything you would expect, right down to my teacher, a dead-ringer for footballer George Best.

George Best

He drove an orange Volkswagen Karmen Ghia and all of the mothers at the school turned their heads like if they were magnets on a swivel when he left the building every day after school.

Karmen Ghia

At home, I listened to music on my record player and a small transistor radio in my room—The Beatles, T. Rex, The Faces, Elton John would be on heavy rotation in that room. To be honest, I’m both amazed and impressed by my burgeoning music tastes. It’s still pretty much the same playlist today.

We didn’t have a television—my father refused to pay for the licence—so I would, instead, oftentimes go upstairs to a neighbour’s house and eat home-baked French pastries and drink Ribena and soda  while watching episodes of Gerry Anderson classics like Captain Scarlet and UFO.  

But, sometimes, when I was lucky, I would get to go to the movies.

Now, I’m not sure if this is actually true or if my parents were just trying to duck out, get a little time away on their own, but, apparently, Luxembourg had some fairly strict policies regarding the attendance of children at movies. ‘G’-rated, kids’ movies—Disney stuff, mostly—was usually screened on Saturday afternoons, and me and my British friends would go and get our fill of classics like The Million Dollar Duck, etc., all preceded by scratched and worn old time black and white serials like Radar Men from the Moon. But regular movies—action pictures, romances, or straight up dramas—were another story; these were off-limits to kids in Luxembourg City.

Now, again, this was either just plain (but smart) bullshit concocted by my parents to keep me at home or Luxembourg had some pretty pragmatic consideration for the adults in the audience that paid their money for a kids-free movie going experience. (A detail that might actually prove my parents’ story correct is the screening of the movie Patton. General George S. Patton was considered a Luxembourg folk hero, what with practically single-handedly liberating Luxembourg from Nazi occupation in WWII, so the eponymous biopic wasn’t only allowed for full viewing, it was encouraged. Come one, come all, it was practically your patriotic national duty to see this movie. This was also true of The Battle of Britain. Come to think of it, any film that showed Nazi Germany getting their comeuppance was cleared for viewing by all.) Anyway, my point is this: if it wasn’t animated or if it didn’t have Dean Jones in it, I probably didn’t see it. Not in a theatre anyway.

But, you see, I did see those movies. And the actors too. Steve McQueen? Al Pacino? Dustin Hoffman? Robert Redford? Faye Dunaway? Raquel Welch? Yup. I saw all of them. But, no, I didn’t see them in the  movie theatre—that’s true. I saw them, instead, in the best theatre I’ve ever been to in my life: the one sitting on the opposite side of the table in my mother’s kitchen, with my mother telling me those stories.

Typical night in my house in 1973: after dinner, my parents and I would take a walk down the terraced valley of Luxembourg city—rain or shine, fall or spring, winter or summer—through ancient architecture of old castles and brambles, or cobblestoned streets down to the city square at the centre of town.

Then, the walk done and back at home, I would retreat to my room, grab a book (a Roald Dahl or maybe a Hardy Boys Mystery) or, instead, the model kit of a Spitfire I was working on, turn on the radio to hear Rod the Mod’s “Maggie May” or Free’s “All Right Now” coming through the small speaker while my parents got dressed up and went out. To the movies. Now, if you’re a young parent in the 2000s, welcome to—and be prepared to be horrified by—the early 1970s—the early 1970s of hip, progressive European parents in a European city.

Oh, we’re going out? Hang on, let me give a quick heads-up to the neighbour that our eight-year-old will be left alone in the house all night. Oh, hi, upstairs neighbour. Listen, if the building burns down, do us a favour, won’t you, and collect our kid before it crashes to the ground? Cheers!

And that was that. They were out. For the night. All night. I would spend the rest of the night, by myself, listening to music, reading books, comic books, pilfering forbidden snacks (that my mother purposefully left in easy to find locations). No movies for me. Not until the next day, anyway…

The next morning, Saturday, my mother would, whilst making breakfast, sit me down at the kitchen table and re-tell me every beat, every scene, every word (it seemed) of dialogue of those movies that she saw the night before.

And she was a storyteller—she had excellent pacing and delivery, and she was an absolute master of the turning point. She would leave me hanging with just enough detail to wonder what the hell would—what could?—happen next… and then go sort out the coffee, or the eggs, or the toast that was going on in the background, my father coming in and out of the room, hanging around to relive one of the good bits from the movie he saw, his expressions on his face expressing enjoyment and honest surprise, as if he didn’t remember it being that good.

His suspicions were correct. They weren’t that good.

You see, the movies that she ‘told’ me were movies that I, years later, inevitably saw, many of them in theatres, in revival houses, where ‘old’ movies are shown. I saw them, but here’s the thing: I was almost always disappointed. The stories just weren’t as well told as my mother told them. They didn’t have the drama, the excitement, the suspense, they didn’t have the good stuff that my mother had when she told me those stories.

Take, for example, the Steve McQueen classic, Papillon. Now, don’t get me wrong, Papillon is, rightly, in my opinion, considered a classic in the Steve McQueen oeuvre. And it is pretty impressive work—from both McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, his sidekick through most of the picture. But, I hate to say this—I mean, I really hate to say this; I’m a BIG Steve McQueen fan—the movie is not that great. I mean, it should be; it’s got a great story of a guy who is wrongly convicted of a murder, gets sent away to a penal colony in French Guiana, goes through Hell—and I mean, Hell—and then gets sent to Devil’s Island! And, holy shit, he escapes!

Okay? Get it? Let’s do an inventory:

  • Steve McQueen? Check.
  • Dustin Hoffman? Check.
  • Devil’s Island? Check.
  • A ‘holy shit’ escape?

I mean, this thing should be the most amazing picture you ever saw—and when my mother told it to me, it was! It was fucking incredible! Why? Because my mother understood pacing, holding on to the good parts—then letting them go. And at the right time. And, better than anything, she cut out the boring parts. My mother, she would be surprised to learn, was a kick-ass feature film editor!

But when I watch this thing now—and we’re talking serious presentation: Blu-ray, gigantic 4k television—probably better, technically, than its theatrical screening… well, when I watch this now, I find myself recalling the words Roger Ebert used to describe this movie: “You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over.”

Jeezuz, I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s true. It’s true. It’s just not very good. And, yet, somehow, my mother made this thing play out like the best thing I ever saw in the cinema of my mind there in that small pre-war kitchen, the sound of eggs frying, the Luxembourg City traffic coming from the open window, a mélange of sounds, a soundtrack that told me I was in the clutches of magic, in the grasp of the power of story.

My mother is dead now. She passed away a couple of weeks ago at the time of this writing and, to be honest, this is meant as an exercise in grief—a way to make things like an unexpected death—and when, really, is death expected?—small, manageable. Something I can understand, like something I can hold in my hand, my head.

I’ll never forget that scene, the one at our front door on those Friday nights. My mother and father, looking like extras from Mad Men, on their way out into the world—my father going out to look good, to be seen with his beautiful wife, and my mother going out to collect stories to tell her son… to, over the smell of espresso, frying polenta and eggs, the sounds of it all, teach him the power of story, to teach him the power of imagining whoever and whatever and whenever and wherever he ever wanted…

My greatest storyteller is gone, but her story—her stories—will live on.

I will tell them.

 

 

 

 

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