by Sam Carver
Nostalgia - A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.
On a warm October day during my sophomore year in high school afternoon classes were suspended and everybody, grades nine through twelve and faculty, made their way down to the Regent Theater on Main Street to watch a matinee screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.
This was a bold move on the part of the administration and principal, given that the film was already notorious for the youth of the actors in the lead roles and the brief nudity they displayed. There was already excited talk about it among the kids, especially my group of knucklehead male friends. As it turned out the shot of sixteen year old Olivia Hussey’s breasts probably lasted less than a second of screen time.
If this was not enough to stir our already roiling hormones the film was gritty, bloody, beautiful and sad; a perfect reflection of the all or nothing mentality of adolescence.
By the tragic end many of the girls were weeping openly and I was wiping away my own tears before my friends could notice.
I developed an enormous crush on a girl a grade below me. Crush is an apt word for the state of emotional burden it describes. As we used to say back in the day, it was heavy, man.
This girl attended the Romeo and Juliet event, and there was an assumption on my part that it was the kind of film that appealed to her: sweeping, epic, passionate, filled with beautiful people, costumes and scenery with a tortured romance at its center.
We became friends hanging out with the same extended group or rowdies, goof-offs and malcontents. I asked her to go to a movie with me, the 1967 version of Far from the Madding Crowd starring Julie Christie when she was in her absolute ascendancy.
Now, the very act of asking her to be alone with me in a darkened room was probably enough to convey my interest in her, but I may have hoped that she would understand that the story writ large on the wide screen was a stand-in for my own deep and abiding love for her.
The film was almost 3 hours long, which worked for me; more time in the dark with my girl.
Here’s what we saw. Christie plays Bathseba Everdene, who inherits a prosperous farm. She attracts the attention of three men. First there’s Gabriel Oak(Alan Bates), who raises sheep. He is solid, capable, constant and boring as an Iowa Sunday. I figured he represented me if you left out the solid and capable.
Then there was the dashing, callow and selfish calvary officer Troy played by a young and gorgeous Terence Stamp.
Finally, Peter Finch (who would later win a posthumous best actor Oscar for Network) plays a rich but lonely landowner.
To turn a long story into a ten minute short, Christie spurns Bates, takes up with Stamp, who leaves her for another girl whom he has impregnated. Stamp disappears. Christie is betrothed to Finch. On their wedding day, Stamp returns to claim Christie as his own. Finch shoots him dead with a fowling piece and faces the gallows. Christie marries Bates as the last man standing, neither one of them looking to sure about it. The end.
My friend seemed to like the film but her only comment was that the cavalry officer “wasn’t all bad” which indicated to me that she was looking for some way to redeem his character because he was sooo ... gorgeous. And, like Bathsheba Everdene, she seemed to have no interest at all in the Bates character I’d felt best represented myself.
I determined to have another go at winning her heart through film and went for another English period drama, The Go-Between, directed by American ex-pat Joseph Losey with a script by the esteemed playwright, Harold Pinter. The film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes the year it was entered and again, paired Julie Christie and Alan Bates.
Why didn’t I just tell the girl how I felt? Because I was pathologically shy, clamming up around the opposite sex. Unburdening my soul directly felt impossible for me. Besides, I had an inkling which I never allowed to surface, that the moment I told her of my real feelings our days watching movies in the dark would be over. Better to prolong the agony and the illusion of a sweet if remote possibility.
In The Go-Between a young working class boy spends the summer with his wealthy schoolmate at his family’s estate in the North of England. His friend falls ill and the boy spends time with his friend’s stunning older sister (Christie).
Almost as a game, Christie dispatches the boy with messages to her working class lover, played by Bates, who uses him to send messages back to Christie. Christie’s mum catches wind of the scheme and, using the boy like a blood hound, catches the couple in a barn in an extremely compromising posture. The lovers are separated and Bates shoots himself.
Years later the boy, now a haunted and emotionally stunted man, is summoned by the aged Christie character to meet her grandson with the implication that her descendent has inherited a genetic resemblance to her long ago amour.
Neither I nor my friend knew much about the suffocating unfairness of the English class system, but she seemed to think that Bate’s character’s suicide was an unnecessary and extreme reaction. I felt, but did not say aloud, that I could totally get there, that I might also feel as though there was nothing to live for if I was separated from, say, her.
Given the pall of gloom that overtook us after these films, one would think that I’d seek out a comedy to take this girl to, but, stubborn as a summer cold and dumb as a stump, I doubled down on tragedy.
The Swedish film Elvira Madigan, directed by Bo Vinterberg, was called by The New Yorker “perhaps the most beautiful movie in history.”
Who wouldn’t want to see that? Who wouldn’t want to see a Danish circus performer run away with a Swedish army officer, be rejected by society, struggle to survive and end up deciding to die?
The film ends with Elvira walking through the tall grass in the Scandinavian sunlight after making love to her officer. The officer takes aim on her from behind with his pistol. Freeze frame on Elvira, a serene smile on her face. The shot is heard on the soundtrack. Hold on Elvira for a few seconds. Then, the second shot for the officer himself. So, where would you like to eat?
All these films were beautiful, full of lovely actors doing fine work, with award winning cinematography by masters of the art, set in a summer that never fades.
But my girl, being intelligent, detected a pattern in my viewing choices and probably thought there was a chance that any long term relationship with me would end in a murder/suicide. And, being a sensible young woman, she backed away and we never went to any more films together.
Young men, heed my words. Do not woo your women with sad tales of love unfulfilled and lives destroyed. Show them laughter, warmth, happiness, a future full of joy. Or take them to a slasher flick. I hear that works too.
I was fortunate, in that my friend, besides her other virtues, was kind-hearted and loyal. She never shunned me for being the weird little creep I was, as others might have, but remained a valued friend, just not the sitting together in the intimate darkened theater kind. She was not the last woman in my life, nor even the most important, but when something makes me remember these films that we shared, it brings her back to me, and that makes me happy.