|Apr/May 2017 Salon|
Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer
Back in the day, way back when, once upon a time, when people went to the movies (there were no such things as "films," at least not in my pre-adolescent social set in northern New Jersey), they entered the theater any time, not just at the beginning of a showing. Start times may well have been posted on the glass of the booth where you bought your tickets, but I don't remember paying them any attention until my early adulthood in New York when it became necessary to buy a ticket in advance and then stand on line until the previous audience left and you were allowed to take a seat to await the start of a new showing.
Ushers in those earlier days weren't just there to take your ticket and open the doors for the old audience to leave and a new one to enter. They were young men and women, usually dressed in natty uniforms and armed with flashlights, who showed you individually to your seat in an already darkened theater while the movie was in full swing, finding two or more seats together if you were not alone, in whatever part of the theater your ticket price allowed you to sit. The folk already seated and engrossed in what was going on on the screen had no choice but to stand up or at least make room for you to squeeze by, but few in my memory took offense at latecomers, probably because they had come in themselves after the first or second reel.
Of course, unless someone had already told you the plot of the film, you had no idea what was happening when you started watching it a quarter or even three-quarters of the way through. But even if you arrived at the very end during the chase scene or the lovers' inevitable reunion, that detail didn't mar your enjoyment. You already knew the good guys would triumph and the handsome young man and pretty girl would get back together and live happily ever after. Seeing how the film ended was just a reminder of the pleasure you were about to have of watching how much the young couple had to go through to reach that happy ending, and it only whetted your appetite for the hardships you were about to witness, much as you might hang on the words of a friend who was about to tell you how she narrowly but successfully survived a dangerous operation. You would in any case probably forget how the movie did end as you became engaged in the ups and downs of the plot. Even if you retained that memory, for all you knew the story might turn out differently from the way you saw it conclude upon entering the theater. As soon as you stepped inside the rococo lobby of that building (movie houses were almost all large, sometimes converted music or vaudeville halls, and were single-screen), you entered a world where anything could happen, at least anything that did not disturb the pleasant fantasy life you paid to take part in each week as if it were a trip to a house of worship. If the film actually did somehow manage to end in a different way from what you had earlier witnessed, you might be surprised but probably not shocked as long as the lovers got together and peace and justice again prevailed in the land. Anything was possible once the usher had torn your ticket in half in that popcorn-scented lobby and handed you back the other half as a kind of talisman and three-hour visa into a world of happy endings.
Out of this experience of entering a theater at any point in the showing of a movie came the expression, "This is where I came in." Nowadays it indicates the sense of having experienced a present event as identical to one already experienced, usually in one's deep past. There are other ways of saying something similar: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose ("The more things change, the more they stay the same") and more recently, "Been there, done that." But for those who remember what it was like to walk in at a random point between the start and end of a feature film in the middle of the 20th century, "This is where I came in" also conveys a sense of weltschmerz those other expressions lack.
The expression has come to stand for the futility of human endeavor in the face of unrelenting personal and historical necessity, a recognition of the way life and the world keep rewriting their plots in the same predictable clichés. It can also express the pointlessness of hoping anything significant will change for the better. We are, it says, living reruns of what we have already experienced, not reruns of our favorite moments but twists of an unpleasant plot we recognize all too well and which we once thought unique and unrepeatable. We vote for a candidate we believe means what s/he says during the campaign, only to find s/he is just another hack like the ones who came before. We find ourselves in a relationship that once showed signs of being one that would endure and that would bring us some measure of happiness, only to find we have arrived at the same hapless place where our previous relationships foundered. "This is where I came in," we say, if only to ourselves, as we watch the new president or significant other morph into previous presidents and previous significant others.
At what point in our lives do we become conscious of this sense of having seen the movie before? Does it happen early on if only in specific instances—a failed second or third relationship, another job gone down the tubes—but only in later life as the big picture, the world in all its folly repeating its stupid and atrocious tale, as if humanity's scriptwriter could come up with no new twists for the plot but the old tried and proven ones? Does the realization of never-ending sameness mean there is no hope for making things better, at least no hope for any single person to make an alteration to something which in another time or place we called Fate?
Nevertheless, as good Americans we go on believing religiously in the power of the individual to alter his or her situation but show little inclination to actually effect real change in the general world around us. We insist the sky is the limit for our individual selves but remain remarkably passive about our collective destiny, leaving that to politicians we place our faith in to lead us to the Promised Land we regard as our American birthright. We are disappointed on a regular basis in this regard, but that doesn't stop us from believing in the next man or woman who comes along on a charger wearing a white hat. We marry and divorce and then marry again as if the magic spell that touched Cinderella and her favorite leading man must eventually find its way to us as well. We live our lives as if we were playing the lottery rather than taking responsibility for both our individual and collective futures. And then we die wondering where our movie went awry in both.
We think, This is where I came in. Only, by then it's too late to complain that this isn't the movie we were promised. And we're not going to get our money back or get to start over with a different plot and a different set of characters, as if that would make a difference anyway. We're stuck with the world as it is, not as Hollywood has convinced us it should and could be. And it's not just Hollywood, of course. We're awash in a world that promises us the moon for the price of the latest self-help fantasy or a few minutes devoted to the ubiquitous infomercial playing up and down the television and radio dial, not to mention on our smart phones and tablets. We can't look right or left without something, whether cosmetic, surgical, or in the form of good old-fashioned religion, promising the bliss we know in our hearts we deserve.
When I was still pre-school age, my mother used to take me to movies at the Fox and Oritani theaters located across the street from each other in downtown Hackensack, New Jersey. We had to take the #82 bus from Fort Lee to get there and then walk a bit besides. I still remember the clock on the wall to the right of the screen, encircled in a discreet blue fluorescence. When its hands reached a certain configuration, we had to leave so my mother could get back in time to have my father's dinner on the table when he got home from work. We invariably arrived mid-movie and left the same way. Since there were always two full-length films (a feature and a "B" movie), not to mention a newsreel and a cartoon or two, I doubt we ever got to see more than one of those movies in its entirety, not even the main attraction my mother was there for. But I recall some of the titles better than I do more important films I saw when I was older, Meet Me in St. Louis and Biscuit Eater being prominent among them. The latter was a rerun my older brother had seen in his own youth, a tear-jerker about a dog. The former is of course the classic starring Judy Garland.
That was my early introduction to the abiding faith underlying all the movies, sitcoms, commercials, and now social media postings affirming that faith. So, don't try to distract me with reality—an unpleasant abstraction at best. We will reach our promised lands if we just keep wishing upon a star and use that new miracle wrinkle remover as directed. Our ships will come in, and on them will be... fill in the celestial beings of your choice. And the rest of the world will come round, too, when it realizes the truth and beauty and righteousness of our American dreams. And we will, goddamn it, we will live happily ever after.