Summer, 1975. I am 5 years old. I can remember images, feelings, and memories of memories. My father, on a Saturday, says that we’re going to a movie. It’s a fishing movie. My father loves fishing. My entire family does, although I have to say it never quite grabbed me, not as a child, and not now. It’s too slow, too quiet, and nothing much happens except in the brief seconds when you catch something. But my father adored it. So, we go to the theater. I am surprised to see all my uncles, aunts, my grandparents on my father’s side, my cousins.
My eyes go to the poster. Rows and rows of teeth. I am scared. I know what this movie is; I’ve seen previews on TV, and I remember kids talking about it in kindergarten. But I am also excited. I love the movies. My mom told me, later, that they never had to get a sitter when they would go to the movies because I was so quiet in the theater, never made a fuss, because I was so entranced by what I saw. The first movie I ever saw, apparently, was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, although I do not remember it. Still, I feel like it’s imprinted on my brain somehow.
My mother loved the movies. She loved the celebrities, the stories, the sheer act of going. My father was more pragmatic about it – he didn’t care too much for science fiction, although he knew I loved it. But he loved them too, in his own way. It was my mother’s excitement that I remember the most, though, and her excitement was contagious. Even today, before we go to the theater, the butterflies, the tingling, the firing of the synapses and the dopamine rush hits, and I attribute these emotions to my mother. The ritual of going to the movies feel more real to me than any church I ever went to in my childhood – and we didn’t go to church often. We went to the movies, though, all the time.
We enter the theater, all of us. I ask my father, “Can you let me know when the scary parts come? I don’t want to be scared.” My father laughs, and says, “I’ve never seen this before. I’m going to be just as surprised as you.” I sit next to him, and he holds my hand. The movie begins, and I hear the rhythmic pounding of the score, and see the young woman be attacked by an unseen leviathan of the deep, and it doesn’t occur to me until much later that I was probably too young for this particular movie. But I am frightened, and I hold my father’s hand. But later, I am exhilarated, as the cop, the scientist, and the fisherman hunt and attempt to destroy the monster, and I feel emotions so profound and deep as to change me forever. I was scared, but I enjoyed it. That was true for me then, and it still is now.
Afterwards, I couldn’t stop talking about it, as I walked to the car between my mother and my father. I wanted to know all there was to know about sharks. And I wanted to know all there was to know about movies. I wanted to do that. I wanted to make others feel like that. It was as pure a moment as I can remember.
And I was terrified to take baths for months afterward. Jaws could go through the drain, you see. Everyone knows that.
Summer, 1982. I am 12 years old. These memories are clearer, but still through the prism of youth and some nostalgia. My father and I are eating cheeseburgers at my uncle’s burger joint. We have both been unceremoniously kicked out of the house, because my mother was throwing a Tupperware party, and having friends and family over. My sister was out and about – she was a teenager and barely at home. So, my dad wants to know how to kill a few hours. I tell him excitedly, “We could go see E.T. You haven’t seen it yet.” I had seen it a week or so before, with friends. My father sighs, and I expect him to say no, and to hand me some quarters and go play pinball and video games in the back of my uncle’s burger joint. Instead, he says, “Let’s go see it.”
The summer of 1982 was a halcyon time for the movies. I went every week, at least once. This was back when parents were much less afraid of the world, and I was frequently dropped off at our theater to take in a bunch of movies by myself. There was one scary moment, when I was dropped off to see The Wrath of Khan, where I wandered off and when my mom and dad came to pick me up, I was gone. They rightfully freaked out, called the police, but then drove back to the theater to find me sitting outside, looking at the movie posters. They were furious, and threatened to not let me go to the movies by myself again, which of course I protested. The movies had their hooks in me deeply by then, you see.
So, we walk through the lobby of the theater, and find our seats. The film begins, and as usual I am transported. I have this thing, you see, where I spend much of the time watching the audience react to the movie – almost as much as watching the movie itself. I had already seen E.T., so much of my time was looking at the film reflected in everyone else’s eyes. It’s part of the moviegoing process for me, as much a part of it as eating popcorn and choosing just the right row to not be too far from the screen but far enough to see everything, to be a part of a group of people, to feel something larger than myself. Sitting in a full movie theater, about to take a journey with complete strangers, but enjoying the uncertainty of it, the anticipation, to hear your own laughter mixed in with others, to feel the emotions come and not feel so alone – that’s what movies are to me. They were at twelve, and they still are now.
I knew E.T. would die. I cried my heart out the first time I saw it. This time, knowing what happens, I steeled myself up for it. I wouldn’t break. Not going to happen. I’m not going to cry in front of my father, not over a movie. My father wouldn’t approve, I think. He’s not the kind of man who would want his son to cry over a movie. That’s not how he was built, and he didn’t want me to be that way either, I thought.
But then Elliott begins his goodbyes, and I couldn’t help it. Again, the emotions come, and they overwhelm. I begin crying, but I also think to look around, because I know, I need to know, that I’m not the only one. That I am not alone. That what I was feeling was real, because nothing is real if it cannot be shared. That was true for me then, and it still is now. And I see my father, and through my own tears I see his. He was crying with me. I had never seen him cry before. It wasn’t the last time.
We walked to the car, quietly. We drove home. My mother’s party was over, and she asked what we did. I told her we saw E.T., and that dad cried and that I cried too. My mom looked at my father, and he smiled and said, “It was great.”
More than ever, I wanted to be a part of movies, somehow, any way I could. Because if a movie could do that to my father, to find the cracks in the armor and make its way inward, to have that much of a profound effect on him, well, that was something worth exploring. Besides, E.T. didn’t really die. He just went home. Everyone knows that.
Summer, 1993. I am 23 years old. I am single and live alone. I have friends, but I am also lonely. I work a day job to pay the bills and to keep a roof over my head, but I’m not doing what I want to be doing. I hate going home. At the time, I couldn’t even afford to keep the lights on, but I couldn’t tell my friends that. I was embarrassed, and I hated myself, and I thought this is what it’s going to be like forever. A couple of years before, I fell in love with someone who did not, could not love me back, and I was still reeling from that. My only refuge was my friends. I adored my friends and shared every possible moment I could with them. My dreams of being involved with movies were still strong, but I couldn’t see my way through to make them happen. My father had died six years before, and although I couldn’t articulate it then, I still carried all the guilt and sadness with me. My friends were my only respite.
This was the summer of the dinosaur. At this point, I knew who the director was – he was my favorite filmmaker, and I swore I would never miss one of his movies when it opened. I missed the last one, but never again, even though I heard it wasn’t very good. The theater we went to was state-of-the-art, with a new sound system called Dolby Digital that was supposed to be clearer than any theater sound system before. I remember being in the car with my friends, and practically vibrating with anticipation. I have the distinct feeling that my friends both love and hate going to the movies with me – they love my excitement, but they hate that I don’t know where to put it. I must come across to others as this huge nerd who cannot contain himself like an adult. And when you’re 23, oh, you so much want to be an adult. You’re too cool for school. Restraint and temperance are the way to be – to get excited like a little kid is unseemly.
We sit down, and the movie begins. This loud screeching noise dominates the theater speakers, and what looks to be a huge compact disc fills the screen, and the goosebumps rise from my spine to the back of my neck. “Jesus, I think I’m sterile now,” my friend says. It’s the last thing he says for a while, as the film begins, and we are reminded, somewhere deep within our primordial soul, what it was like to be prey. What it was like to be hunted. To see both the majesty and the terror, and to be utterly transported in ways that only this director can accomplish.
When the tyrannosaur throws the velociraptor with his teeth, and he roars as the park banner comes floating down, I was trembling with… fear? Excitement? Overstimulation? All three? Who knows. Even today, I replay that scene a lot, trying to desperately recapture that feeling, a feeling I’ve only felt a few times since. My friend’s girlfriend dug her nails into his arm so deep that you could see the marks for weeks afterwards. And I knew I had to experience that again.
Over the rest of that summer, I went back to see the dinosaur movie twelve times. Honestly, it’s probably more – I would sit and watch it several times in a row, just spending the day inside the theater, back before the theater crew didn’t check too closely or simply didn’t care. Sometimes I called in sick at work just to go. I remember one time, in the parking lot, a woman was hyperventilating outside her car, and I stayed with her to make sure she was okay. “GotDAMN, those dinosaurs were real, weren’t they?” I could only nod and agree with her. Dinosaurs are real, and they live today. They’re waiting to eat you, around the corner, behind the bush, and in the shadows. Sharks are in every puddle of water you walk around, and friends live between the stars and inside your glowing heart, watching you, sharing with you, and wishing you love. I mean, everyone knows that.
Spring, 2007. I am 37 years old. I am married with a daughter, a full-time job with the county, and grinding it out as best I can. I am deeply in love with my wife, and I adore and love my daughter, who is almost ten and showing her own passions and her own inspirations. I also write about movies – sparingly, but I am part of a community of film fans that share my enthusiasms. Later, that community would be tested as the owner of the website I wrote sporadically for would crash and burn spectacularly, but that’s a million years away, and right then it felt like I had found my tribe.
I am away on a business trip – I run a court training course for my job, and I am in Corpus Christi with co-workers when my wife calls me, excitedly. “It’s here,” she says. I knew what it was, of course, and I had been waiting for this for a few days. Earlier that week, one of my editors, Drew McWeeny, has tasked me with an article. The site was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the summer of 1982, and Drew wanted me to write about my experiences with E.T. That article is still one of my most favorite things I’ve ever written, not just for the emotions that it stirred in me, but also for the responses I got.
There was one particular response that I had not anticipated. A few hours after my article posted, Drew emailed me. “He wants to get in contact with you. Can I forward your info to his secretary?” I responded in seconds. “Yes, please, absolutely.” I sent my address and waited the next few days.
My life between 1993 and 2007 did not go the way I expected. I expected to be alone, forever. I did not expect to find new lifelong friends in a community, I did not expect to have a wife and child, and I did not expect that anything I wrote would impact anyone. If I couldn’t make movies, I thought, well, then I’ll make the best life I can, love what I can love, and maybe someday that love with spring into something eternal for someone else. I was fine with that. I still am. My journey has taken me places I never expected to go, but I am thankful that I didn’t know beforehand. And I’m excited to see where it goes from here.
At dinner with my co-workers, the call came. I couldn’t contain my excitement, so I asked my wife to open it and read it to me. She did.
“March 6th, 2007
Your memories of seeing E.T. for the first time brought me back 26 years to my experiences making it. I think we had similar epiphanies, which is another way of saying that the difference between telling a story and absorbing a story can be measured in nanometers.
E.T. and all that it symbolized came out of my life even more than from my imagination. Your vivid recollections of your summer of ’82 made an impact on me. I just wanted you to know that.
All my best,
P.S. You are a very good writer.”
I love this director like no other. He has given me my life. I mark my life with his films, and with the love of my family and friends, all mixed together and swirled into a giant ball of energy and power that overwhelms me every single day.
Seeing The Fabelmans with my wife and best friend, and an audience of people yearning, chasing those emotions – the joy, the sadness, the anger, that electric trembling moment when the light hits the screen, the music rises, and the infinite opens to you. No one else has done that to me. No other filmmaker will.
The Fabelmans is the best film of the year, and although you may say I didn’t review the film here, trust me, I did. Because life is nothing if it cannot be shared with the ones you love. Everyone knows that.
THE FABELMANS REVIEW SCORE: 10 OUT OF 10
Universal Pictures‘ The Fabelmans is now playing in select theaters and will expand wide on Wednesday, November 23.
The film is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use.