Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Rodger Kamenetz introduces “Going to the Movies” by Andrei Codrescu. This piece originally appeared on March 2, 2001, as part of the Forward’s Psalm 151 series. It is being published here online for the first time.
Mr. Codrescu was born in 1946 in Sibiu, Romania, and in an early autobiography, “Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius,” he vividly describes the anti-Semitism of Stalinist Romania. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager, landing initially in Detroit, where he was helped by Jewish charities. Already an accomplished poet in Transylvania, he carried the surrealist tradition headlong into the New York poetry scene of the 1960s, where he was influenced by the writing of Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan.
Poet, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, editor of the online literary review “Exquisite Corpse” and National Public Radio commentator, Mr. Codrescu has forged a persona half de Tocqueville and half Henry Miller as he comments on American life with a mixture of wisdom, bemusement and wonder.
Going to the Movies
I don’t like going to the movies because I hate coming out of them. You go in when it’s still light outside and come out after dark. Everything has changed. Reality is so tawdry. Melancholy and sadness rule the wet sidewalks, the solid walls, the stupid faces. You feel disoriented and alien. You were cast from light into some solid weirdness. You have to learn how to walk again.
Part of the problem with the movies is that they can tell a life story in two hours. Real life takes years and years and you can rarely tell what the story is and you certainly can’t tell how or when it will end. The last movie I saw was “Man On the Moon,” about the strange comedian Andy Kaufman. I think that it was a sad movie, but not as sad as the parking lot. Kaufman got an agent, got famous, and died. The moral of the movie is that everyone’s life can have a plot if one has an agent. The parking lot had no such message, it was just there, mysterious and unscripted. You could drive off it and get killed, but it wouldn’t make any sense.
Anything makes more sense than real life, including dreams. This is why children, and many grownups, wake up cranky. They were in their own movies all night and now they have to get up in some shapeless, incomprehensible, unpredictable, or all-too-predictable situation and go on without knowing the script. The saddest person I ever knew was Conrad, my night manager at the Eighth Street Bookstore in New York. Every afternoon before we started work he went to a movie. When we closed shop at midnight, he went back to the movies. He sat at the movies until dawn, then he went home to sleep until the matinee. Conrad was only sad when he wasn’t at the movies, which is when I knew him. He had a short temper, a lugubrious face, and hated noise. Reality, of which we clerks were such a substantial portion, disgusted him. Conrad lived at the movies and barely tolerated reality.
When I was a kid, I went to the movies to sit in the dark and fantasize about some girl sitting next to me. When I actually took a girl to the movies, I was too shy to put my arm around her. I held her watchband for two hours. The movie was a Soviet epic about World War II. I remember piles of dead Krauts and the smell of her cheap cologne. When we left the theater, I felt weird, but not as weird as I feel now.
Only adolescents can really take the movies, which is why most movies are made for them. Adolescents use the dark theater to project their own movies of stickiness and desire. The movies are only backgrounds to the more intense dramas in the seats. The poet Frank O’Hara said, “Mothers, let your children go to the movies!” He knew what went on there. But so did the mothers.
In “City of God,” E.L. Doctorow claims that movies are actually alien beings that have infiltrated the world. Beings made out of light slowly remaking our lives in the shapes of the stories they tell.
He should know because they make his books into movies.