A renowned North Carolina filmmaker remembers the scenes from a day — and the recurring appearance of a bad television movie — that led him to embrace a life of movies.
I still don’t know what it is, but I remember the night I first got a feel for it. This was over a half-century ago when we lived in the country and traffic was scarce. I was lying in bed at my grandmother’s house and I couldn’t sleep. I was 4, maybe 5 at the time. An old pickup truck sputtered out of the woods and ducked into a gully a quarter mile down the road. On the wall before me a corresponding rhombus of light rose to the ceiling and faded. A dark moment passed, then the truck began its hard climb out of the gully, stripping gears, downshifting. When its high beams cleared the drop a bright square of light flicked on, diminished with passing shadows, waxed bright again, then as the truck rattled past, stretched around the side wall and flew out the window. It was pure light, elusive, an abstraction tied to the world of things, constantly moving, unfolding in the moment like music, surprising yet inevitable, a complete dramatic action with a beginning, middle and end. I didn’t have a word for it then, but I know it now as cinema.
I grew up with movies and I grew up with cinema and they’re not the same. Cinema is more than motion pictures; it’s the magical essence of the moving image. It’s the impression of fact at a crucial aesthetic remove. It’s one thing becoming another in a way that draws you in — not by association or understanding, but by light and movement.
I made my first film about light and movement. I think I was 18. I wanted to record my childhood high beams, but they were too dim for my film stock, so I pointed my camera at a swarm of sun dapples on another wall — same house but in a different bedroom — one with a window that opened to an orchard in the west. I filmed the flickering wall, and then I tilted a mirror over the bed and bounced the sunlight onto a quilt. When I got the film back from the lab I projected it with my hand-cranked DeVry, and the result was stunning, especially the quilt patterns. Over a half-century later I can still feel the buzz of the moment. A patch of green curlicues laid over a honeycomb mesh, and clotted with clovers becomes a half-dozen agitated June bugs on a screen door. An aqua-colored palm sways in a sourceless wind, while next to it a strobing sunbeam gooses a horse into bucking its rider. As I cranked the projector the quilt came alive, and with essentially the same tools our ancestors used to create the earliest cinema – jumping torches and line drawings on an irregular cave wall.
I attempted nonfiction next — Dried, Fried and Laid to the Side, a silent how-to about my grandmother’s jack pies, then Packin’ Rain, from her disregard for short, intense storms: “It come a hard packin’ rain,” she’d say, “Water run off and didn’t soak worth nothin’.” Of the two, Packin’ Rain was the more cinematic, probably because its assembly was more patient, which is to say, more respectful of its subject – a couple of old folks sitting in a dark room, reverently waiting out a ten-minute thunderstorm. The storm itself dictated the pace, and to the extent I achieved cinema the Lord made it so with wind and water. Dried, Fried was eventually lost, and that’s a small tragedy because the shots themselves formed a lovely record of a time and a place. I can loop a few moments of it in my mind’s eye — the sway of the apple trees, one in particular that produced the most mellow, white apples, as white on the outside as they were on the inside, and with a flavor I’ve been unable to reproduce anywhere. She peeled and sliced those apples, dried them on a tin roof until they were dark and rubbery, and mashed them into a deep brown sauce with sugar and water. Next she rolled out her dough and cut it into circles with a glass bowl. Then she spooned in the sauce, folded them over, pinched them tight and fried them in a skillet, and man, they were good.
Cinema is a waking dream that draws you in by leaving things out. You rush to fill the gaps with whatever your subconscious offers up, and the results are sometimes horrifying. I remember the night I saw my first horror movie. I was in the bathtub when I heard the screen door slam. My father had abandoned us for a few weeks and now he was back. After a few hushed words with my mother he came in to see me, and I could tell he’d missed me. I was 6 —
“Where you been?”
“What you been doin’?”
“Lookin’ for work.”
“Did you do anything fun?”
“Well,” and he closed the toilet lid and took a seat, “I saw this movie called The Birds…” Then he launched into a scene-by-scene retelling of the Hitchcock/du Maurier film, the whole thing, even that gruesome shot of the farmer with his eyes pecked out. Thank God I didn’t see it — only I did. Tippy Hedren was my mother, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, and Bodega Bay was Myrtle Beach. The birds themselves… well, there were two grandmothers, a Loflin and a Hawkins. The birds at Grandmother Loflin’s were those hateful things that picked her cherry tree clean, and the hens she decapitated, and that volatile rooster who almost tore my head off that time. I still cringe. It began as an Easter present, a cheeping blue biddy, running in circles, last one in the box. He allowed me to pick him up, but when I placed him on my belt buckle he ran up my shirt and pecked me on the nose. I placed him on my buckle again, and again, trot trot trot, peck. Everybody thought it was cute but I knew he hated me already. We should’ve gotten rid of him right then, but we let him grow large and raptor-like, and one day he got between me and the back door and if my grandmother hadn’t come along with a broom I’d have probably lost an eye or two, same as that farmer. The birds — or bird — at Grandmaw Hawkins’ was an Amazon parrot named Elmer. Grandmaw Hawkins was a religious fanatic and Elmer was a green and yellow bird with orange, dilating, incredibly cinematic eyes who’d been taught to sing, “Jesus loves little Elmer”. He also lived in a cage, which should’ve told me something right there. But I let my guard down one morning, and after jacking himself up on gospel music and coffee-soaked crackers he crawled out of his unlocked cage (my error), flew across the kitchen, landed on my neck, and pierced one of my ears. The bloody upshot — all cinema is local. I had no problem buying du Maurier’s premise, that birds are essentially messed-up creatures that would turn on civilization in a heartbeat. The Birds was realism to me, and its hyper-realistic elements provided by me. And that surreal, bathtub version of The Birds, the one where my mother runs down the beach swatting away parrots and gamecocks, is still one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever (not) seen.
I didn’t see Teenagers From Outer Space either, not much of it anyway, but over time some part of me has fashioned it into a cinematic masterpiece. I guess the things that feed you aren’t always legit. It’s not all stretching rhombi and solar pinholes you know. It’s also imagistic junk food, and scraps of aggressively bad moviemaking. A glimpse or two of B-movie silliness enters your memory and resonates with your deep predispositions and default archetypes to produce something time-tested, something classic.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s Channel Five broadcast a science fiction series out of Raleigh called The Saturday Morning Movie. It came on early and my mother wanted the house to herself on Saturdays, so my brother and I walked across the road in our pajamas to watch it on my grandmother’s RCA. Because the signal traveled ninety-two miles to reach us, the reception was completely unreliable. These days you just turn on your set and watch a movie. Back then you spent the better part of your viewing experience fiddling with a V-shaped antenna, attempting to cohere images in a sea of buzz, or collapse ghosts into a single, readable form, or at least narrow your incoming signal to a single station. If you’ve ever found your radio tuned to two a.m. stations simultaneously – broadcast towers could do that with images. Add to that, the psychotronic weirdness we were beaming in — The Crawling Eye, The Brain From Planet Arous, Journey to the Seventh Planet, Day of the Triffids — that was crazy stuff anyway. I mean, how do you know when you’ve got that crawling eye just right?
So Teenagers From Outer Space begins (and this is my personal rendition, not the YouTube version) when a space ship lands in a desert. The reception on this crisp autumn morning is unusually strong, so I can see all of this very clearly. I have my Pepsi and my brother has his toast with cherry preserves and we’re good. A spaceman crawls out of the ship, a dog barks at him and he turns it to bone with a dehydration ray. With the perimeter cleared he removes his helmet, and now we see that he’s The Sadistic Guy. He sneers at the dog bones, gives the all-clear signal, and out crawl his buddies, a Functionary and a pale, sullen Teen. The Teen as I recall, denounces their mission to establish a feeding colony on Earth, then he performs a terrorist act and flees into the desert. The Sadistic Guy, surviving the bomb or whatever it was, radios headquarters for instructions. They tell him that the boy has been linked to a rebel cult that’s sweeping the home planet, and that he is to be to brought back alive — humans expendable. The Sadistic Guy says, “I’m on it,” and off we go. In screenwriting lingo that’s called the first act turning point, and that’s how far I’d gotten before the phone rang and suddenly it’s “Gary, get your clothes on, Gary, get ready, Gary, be standing in the driveway in ten minutes.”
I made it, just barely, jumped in the truck while it was still rolling and pulled the squealing door shut. It always smelled like stale cigars, oil-soaked rags, and Go-Jo hand cleaner in there.
“Where’re we goin’?”
And I would, too. I definitely would, because I’d messed up a few days earlier. I’d asked my father to drop me off a block before we reached school so Suzie Wilson wouldn’t see me crawling out of a plumbing truck. He didn’t say much at the time, just shook it off. But he’d been wounded by his first-born and was looking for what we now call a “teaching moment”.
Our first stop was Miss Vestal’s house where the idea was to pick up a check and keep moving. What my father didn’t figure on was all the “while you’re here” work she had planned for him.
“While you’re here, Bill, would you take a look at that sink trap? And when you’re done with that would you tell me why there’s all this seepage in the basement? And before you go would you help me move this couch?”
While she was getting her money’s worth out of my father I sneaked into her living room and switched on her Magnavox and turned it to channel 5. A face congealed in the phosphor. It’s the Sadistic Guy again, trigger happy, just looking for an excuse to dry somebody out. I watch him quiz a girl in a swimming pool about “the new boy,” and when she tells him to get lost he turns her into a pile of bones on dry concrete. A few minutes later I hear my father tell Miss Vestal he’s gonna have to charge her extra and we’re outta there.
We stopped by a tool shop to pick up a length of lead, then a second house where a woman had to call her cousin to write a check because she couldn’t read or write. My father passed the time drinking coffee and listening to her sad stories. Me, I took the opportunity to slip into a back bedroom where a 100-year-old woman sat propped up in bed, her hair all screechy and white, watching cartoons. I said hello, but she just flicked her eyes to one side, which could’ve been involuntary. When I placed my fingers on the channel changer she didn’t respond, so I turned the knob until I found my movie. The set was an ancient Zenith and the picture was almost unwatchable. Still, this is what I saw — the Teen has surrendered to the authorities, not sure why, and the Sadistic Guy is launching a one-man assault on the Police Station. He’s really in his element now, turning cops to bones on the courthouse steps, laughing madly. It’s a slaughter, and I keep waiting for the old woman to wince, but she never does.
Next we came to the house where I was to collect my comeuppance. I don’t remember much about the house itself, only that it was dark in there, and fragrant. A smiling young Housewife held the door for my father as he lugged in a liquid petroleum tank, then she disappeared into the basement with him. Alone and unneeded, I wandered around until I found a large Motorola, flipped it on and settled in for the big finish.
The Teen, discovering that all of his new friends have been murdered, surrenders to the Sadistic Guy who escorts him back to the ship. The boy claims to have come to his senses, and this gives his escort great satisfaction. When they reach the landing area we discover that the Teen is in fact the Emperor’s son, and that the Emperor has traveled to Earth to vie with the youth personally. As an invasion fleet assembles in the sky above them, father and son work out their differences. To me on that morning it was Shakespeare —
“Could such inordinate and low desires,” the Emperor asks of his son, “such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts, such barren pleasures, such rude society as thou art matched and grafted to, accompany the greatness of thy blood and hold their level with thy princely heart?”
The Teen responds by tossing off a lame vow — “I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself.”
But his father isn’t buying it. “Why do I tell thee of my foes,” he laments. “Thou art like enough, through vassal fear and base inclination and the start of spleen to fight against me under Percy’s pay.”
The signal is weakening and the screen can barely paint figures in the white phosphor now. I hear my father calling and he won’t say it again. He’s real unhappy with me anyway, and I’d be wise to listen up and not make such a big deal over a movie. But then, how can you just walk away from pure cinema?
“The end of life cancels all bonds,” the Teen swears, “and I will die a hundred thousand deaths ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.”
Suddenly there’s car outside, then a thin man in a trench coat rushing in, agitated, wanting to know who I am and what I think I’m watching on his television. I push the button and Teenagers shrinks to a liquid white dot.
I guess the chore fit the crime. At least in my father’s head it did. I lay on my back and scooched into a dark crawl space, then I pulled myself several feet across a floor of cold, powdered dirt until it turned to mud beneath a leaking copper pipe. The idea was to seal the pipe with hot lead. My father told me that he’d pass in a ladle of liquid lead and I was to pour it over the joint. That was the plan. But it was a tight squeeze — a fist, maybe a fist-and-a-half between my nose and the floor beams. To seal the joint I’d have to drag the ladle over my head at arm’s length and pour the lead by rolling my wrists. That I could probably handle. And I could handle the tiny brown spiders hanging everywhere, and the crusty exoskeletons that crunched and collected in my hair. I could handle feeling the full weight of the house over me, and the low-grade panic that came with it. But what I couldn’t handle was the suffocating blue smoke the lead produced when it hit that cold pipe. That was rough. Gas mask rough. The crawl space hissed blue and he told me to cover my mouth like that would do anything. When the smoke finally thinned he shined a light on the joint and told me I’d completely missed it, so he passed in a second ladle, then a third one to make sure we didn’t need to come back. The Trench Coat Husband wanted us to pour a fourth but my father ignored him and told me to come on out.
He was more talkative on the way home, probably figured we’d squared things, even asked me to grab lunch. But I wanted him to drop me off at my grandmother’s house, and the moment he did I found my brother and asked him how the movie ended. He told me the Teen had only pretended to side with his father — that he’d asked permission to guide in the invasion fleet, but when they handed him the controls he brought it in so fast he blew everything to smithereens, including himself. I remember thinking, “Yeah, that’s probably the way it should’ve gone.”
I didn’t know the word, “catharsis” on that morning, but that’s what it was.
A few days ago I broke one of my rules and replayed that final section of Teenagers on YouTube, just to hear what the father and son actually said to each other. The son is played by an actor named David Love who comes off like a depressed Eddie Haskell. The father is played by King Moody (his real name), who sports the kind of fake beard you’d see in a middle school Christmas play. Both are wearing space pajamas.
SON: I am sorry that I acted the way that I did. Now I am ready to take my punishment.
FATHER: There will be no punishment.
SON: You are my father?
FATHER: Yes. I came this trip, hoping I would find that you returned.
SON: Has what I have done not disqualified me?
FATHER: You are back. That is all that matters.
And minus the exposition, that’s pretty much it. The father’s final lines make it a Prodigal Son variation, a ’60s version where the son is in the right if only because he’s young. The poor Emperor who grew up in the Depression with my grandmother, he just doesn’t get it.
Teenagers gave me bad dreams, but then, cinema will do that. The wife is swimming in her pool and her irate husband is pacing around its edge in a trench coat. When it falls open I glimpse the bare bones of his rib cage and I know that something is very wrong. The demons seem to be everywhere tonight. But then the dreams ease up and demons dissipate, and by morning the whole day and everything that happened lives in memory where it belongs — where it continues to deepen and thrive, long after the teenagers from space and my father and my grandmother and all of her apple trees have passed away.