If you’ve read my column with any regularity, if you’ve even interacted with me in actual life, then you’re most likely aware that I like movies and music. A lot. They are two of the biggest sources of joy in my life. I’ve talked of my origins with music a lot in these pages before, but I’ve never talked much about how my taste in film formed. If there is a common link between the two it’s that they’ve both been so prominent in my life I can’t quite trace the moment I became all about them.
What I do know with certainty is that it became clear at an early age that music and movies were things I was going to be into. I watched an old home movie a few months ago where I’m all of three and my mother can be heard remarking “When he gets up he doesn’t want to potty or anything, he wants to listen to music.” Now I don’t have any idea what the first movie I saw was. I do know that it would have been before I saw my first movie in a theater, I was not quite the first generation to grow up with home video, but I was perhaps in the first to grow up with access to films readily.
What sticks out in my mind are two years in particular that form the rock bed of my movie world, 1989 and 1992. In 1989 I saw my first movie in a theater. I can recall vividly sitting in screening room one at the Capri Twin on the Andrew Johnson Highway in Greeneville, watching “Ghostbusters 2.” I did something that day that became something of a ritual for me when I would go to the movies as a kid. I’d always make a point to look back at the projection booth and watch the strip of film going through the machine. One doesn’t quite get that experience anymore with the rise of digital projection.
1989 was also significant as that was the year Tim Burton’s “Batman” came out. “Batman” was one of the first films I was obsessed over, as Batman was my life. I had already fallen in love with the Adam West series by the time the film came out. You see I would watch a VHS of “Batman” while wearing Batman shoes, socks, pants, shirt, then go play with my Batman action figures in my bedroom. A bedroom that had a huge poster of Michael Keaton as Batman on the wall, Batman bed sheets, Batman bed spread, and a custom Batman chair that my Godparents had made for me. I watched Batman on VHS so much that the Diet Coke on the start of the tape—featuring Alfred—will be forever seared in my memory “Just look for a black car, this black car will be rather difficult to miss.”
That movie, and my love of Batman, fueled what would be two big films of the following years for me, both childhood staples. 1990’s “Dick Tracy” and 1991’s highly underrated “The Rocketeer.” Visual feasts of imaginative fun, all taken from comic book source material. These were not the only movies I watched at this time, there was Disney films peppered into the mix, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” another favorite, cementing Rick Moranis as a childhood icon.
1989 out of the way, what about 1992? 1992 is the year that changed my life. I would see two of my most beloved films for the first time that year. One of these films would send me off on a path that has informed so much I have done in my life. Not only as a film fan, but in my writing career, and even in real world events I’ve been fortunate to be involved in.
1992 was the year I saw my first classic film. Another vivid memory, I was sitting on the floor on the living room at home, watching TV. It was on the channel A&E, back when used to be an Arts and Entertainment channel. I heard an announcer say “Coming up next the classic comedy ‘Duck Soup!’” This puzzled me. “‘Duck Soup?’ What on earth could a movie called ‘Duck Soup’ be about?” I watched the movie, and howled with laughter. Now I had seen Three Stooges shorts and Looney Tunes on TV before, but this was my first real classic film.
The Marx Brothers made a huge impact on me. Watching Groucho throw lines around, breaking the fourth wall. Harpo acting like a strange, hyper clown, and Chico generally being just pure chaos. I was so taken by The Marx Brothers that for Halloween 1992 I went as Groucho. Other than kick the door open to classic film for me, what The Marx Brothers did was feed my desire for discovery. Once my Grandmother told me they had other movies in the world, I had to see them. This desire to see as many Marx Brothers movies as I could get my hands on caused me to wander into the classic section on the Friday ritual that oversaw my life right through high school.
That ritual was going to the place that served as my film school, a video store—Popcorn Video—still in business after all these years and in the face of streaming. The rules were simple. I could rent two movies, two games, or one game and one movie. As long as it was PG-13—with some discretion from my mother—anything was game. So once I had wandered down the classics and all the Marx Brothers movies, I saw there was more to see. In short, Marx Brothers led to Abbott and Costello which led to MGM musicals, which led to Cary Grant, and so on and so on. Hitchcock was omni present, as I had been watching “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on Nick at Nite as a kid, even though it would be a few years before I saw one of his films.
The other great life changer for my entire family in 1992 is that my grandfather died of lung cancer. My dad’s mom, Max, plays a role in my filmdom, and—in a most weird way—his cancer does too. When it was clear he was becoming sick, efforts were made to spend a great deal of time together. We rented a condo in Gatlinburg for a few days, and one night he was sitting on the front of a bed watching a movie. I sat next to him and asked what he was watching. It was “A View to a Kill” Roger Moore’s last James Bond movie.
“This is a spy movie, Andy” he said, “About a guy named James Bond.” I asked if he was a good guy and my grandfather replied “Yeah, he saves the world from bad guys.” It would take a few years for me to get back to Bond, but this is a memory I treasure. As his condition worsened, my grandfather was sent to a hospital in Ohio for treatment. We went to visit him, and what I recall most clearly is that his room had a TV on a crane that could be moved to about anywhere around the bed.
Knowing that I was a kid and not really sure what all was going on, Dada—as I called him—told me “Lower the TV to the floor and watch whatever you want, Andy.” I did, and began to flip around the local stations. I was already a board game player at this stage in my life, with Clue my favorite. Once again a TV announcer said “Up next the motion picture Clue!” I was blown away someone made a movie based on my favorite board game. “Clue” is now my favorite movie. We lost my grandfather later that year, but these are memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.
These two things help build the house where my deep love of film lives. My desire to see movies every weekend with trips to popcorn video, off set by my mother guiding me and giving me the occasional suggestion now and then. “Oh, you like those Pink Panther cartoons on TV, you should see the movies” she said, giving me a life long love of Peter Sellers. “You liked Willy Wonka right? You should see Young Frankenstein” giving me a lifelong love of both Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks. “There’s a movie coming on TV I really want you to watch with me, I think you’d like it.” The film was “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” and to this day I can’t see a container of Bon-Ami in a store and not think of the movie (“Do CALM and MURDER go together!?).
I was always fascinated by Comedy as a kid, wanting to make people laugh and watch as much of it as I could. That, in another strange way, led me to find one of my favorite directors, the great Billy Wilder. I found Wilder through Carol Burnett. I loved watching the reruns of sketches from her show that made the rounds on Cable TV in the ‘90s. I was particularly struck by her parody of “Sunset Boulevard,” her over the top “Nora Desmond” character. I had to see what she was parodying, and that led to Mr. Wilder being in my life.
Even then, as much as I watched contemporary films and loved them, there was something about the classics that just struck me a way the other films didn’t. I sometimes wonder what I would be like if I hadn’t had this life long, passionate love for movies. I can’t imagine I’d be anything like I am now. Movies are a central part of the core of my being. My love for them is why I like to talk about them in this column, to tell you what’s coming out on blu-ray. It’s such a beautiful world and it should be shared. We live in a time where any film you want is practically at your fingertips.
My life, simply put, would be worse off without movies—particularly the classics I love so dearly. That love led to watching TCM, meeting friends who love TCM, and having a whole roster of people in my life who love this stuff as much as I do. Friends who are just the most delightful people you could ever hope to know (shout out to all the friends in my life, you’re weird, wonderful, and beautiful people). So what would Andy Ross be without movies? Well, as you’ve just read—and I hope you didn’t find this column too indulgent—I really wouldn’t be “Andy Ross.” A series of still pictures, moving at 24 frames per second, connecting us to people, family, and other humans. If that’s not magic, then I don’t know what is.