26 August 2009
The first clear memories I have of my life come from Argentina, where I lived with my parents, brother, and newly-born sister for about a year when I was four-years-old. Included in those memories is the first trip to the cinema that I can remember. My mother took me to see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial along with a friend of hers. I don't know why E.T. was in the theatre since this was probably around 1989, seven years after its theatrical release date, but who cares.
I am a child of television, having been raised on cartoons and superhero shows - I was a big fan of various Power Rangers programs from Japan such as Ultraman and its variations - so I was accustomed to moving images as a child, but my first experience in a movie theatre was completely different: it terrified me.
I remember the darkness very clearly, the big dark room with only the light of the projector filling the screen. This was probably the first time I sat in the dark with other people, with strangers, and it placed me in a world I had never experienced before, a world that was a little creepy. I was sitting next to my mother and I remember looking up at her, seeing the dull blue of the projection flickering on her face. The enormity of the screen mixed with the darkness was a first for me and I believe that this was the first time I was being made to focus on a movie or a moving image. There was nothing else to do. Watching T.V. you could get up, get a snack, play with toys at the same time, beat on your brother, or do whatever you wanted; T.V. was never the sole activity, especially for a three/four-year-old. Being forced to focus on this movie in front of me in the dark was a different experience for me and I believe I felt uncomfortable, slightly restless and slightly anxious.
The movie went along and I was a little overwhelmed by the images and the sounds and the whole new experience. Then it happened: E.T. stuck his head out from among the stuffed animals with his huge, nasty neck and started screaming. (You know, I'm not even sure if this happened in the movie or if I am mixing two memories into one image) It was terrifying! I don't know how I reacted physically - if I screamed also or if I grabbed to my mother - but I could not handle watching the movie anymore. At that point I turned around in my seat and refused to watch the screen - it was too scary. I stared at the darkness of the back wall, trying to calm myself down. It was then that I noticed this white square in the wall from which a beam of light was coming out, filled with a faint whiteness and little specks of floating dust. I stared at this for what felt a long time, confused at why that white square with light was there. I looked back at the screen, then back at the white square. I don't believe I made the connection then; it was just another element of that strange, magical place in the dark that I didn't understand. After a while I became too anxious and my mother and her friend had to let me get out of the theatre (not unlike a young Bruce Wayne being frightened by the opera). I don't know how much of the film I watched, but I remember those images clearly. The film was during the day, so coming back into the sunlit streets of Buenos Aires was a little jarring. I remember not wanting to go back into that theatre ever again, and I don't think I did.
It's ironic that I love film so much now and the first movie I saw terrified me and made me not want to set foot in a theatre ever again. The effect of the darkness and the isolation in a public place and the huge screen all overwhelmed me in ways that I am still overwhelmed with today, except now I am old enough not to be afraid of the dark and to understand that the white box on the back wall with light coming out of it is a projector. And I do cringe and get scared in movies more easily than the common person, so maybe that E.T. experience never really left me. The cinema can still do its magic on me, for better or worse.