My earliest memories of the movies don't take place in a drive-in or a crowded theater. They're not filled with lightsabers and light-cycles, they don't have explosions, stereo sound, or even color.
My earliest memories of the movies all start with a small, brown, corduroy pillow just a little larger than my head. If I close my eyes and focus I can still smell the combination of dust and sweat that does more to remind me of my childhood than photographs I can't recall being taken, than toys I can't remember playing with.
We lived in a raised ranch in upstate New York, which means the lower level of the house was partially underground. It was split between my bedroom, the laundry room and the den, where we had an enormous television built into a cabinet that never worked except as a make-believe computer for me when I was pretending to be an astronaut or a scientist. Its other function was to hold up the smaller television that actually worked. And it was that television, and that pillow, nestled up against my father in the darkness of the den, that I recall my earliest memories of movies.
My father wasn't around very much during my childhood. His job required a lot of travel, and when he was back in town he tended to hang out at the local bar more than the house. But when he was around, there was little he liked doing more than settling down in the dark of the den and watch movies. We watched everything, my father P.T. Barnum, masterminding my exposure to all of his (and consequently) my heroes. The curtains would part, and with a wave of his whip (or beercan in this case), we both became the same age, reveling to the exploits of Bogart (our favorite), Wayne, Flynn, and Grant. I fell in love with the cool cynicism of Sam Spade, the "true grit" of Rooster Cogburn, the merriment of Robin Hood, and the suave sophistication that was the trademark of so many of Cary Grant's characters.
But more than the larger than life characters and witty rejoinders, it was the shine in my father's eyes as he watched the screen, explaining to his nine year old son who everyone was, what was going on. And all the while I soaked this in, I nestled my head in that brown pillow, that tiny pillow that was always at my father's side.
Last week after a short and sudden illness my father died. I flew to Florida to see him and say my goodbyes. When I got to the hospital they told me he couldn't really respond to me other than with some twitches in his fingers, but that he could hear me. For reasons which in retrospect seem monumentally stupid I hadn't seen or spoken to my father in about two years, and the time I had to say goodbye, to say all the things that should have been said but weren't, was simply too short. But I did the best I could, and one of the last things we talked about, or I talked about, was the movies I grew up loving because of him, and how it won't be the same seeing anything now.
Over the years my taste in films have been informed, expanded, and enlightened my many sources, some of which I'll point out in the next few weeks. But none had even a tenth of the impact my father had on me, and now that he's gone it's almost painful to sit in front of a screen and feel the light on my face, my head falling back onto a small brown pillow that's no longer there.