Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tony's Top Twenty Movies

I have decided to join in the disscussion of "the top movies of all time" with my own top twenty movie list. I've based my list on my love of specific movies, and  the role they've played  in my life's journey. The movies span over eight decades. I call them "signposts." 

Here are my first five movie "signposts."

#1 - PINOCCHIO - 1940

It was around 1948, I was probably  four when my mother and father took me to the theater for the very first time to see the 1940 re-release of the Disney Classic, Pinocchio. Believe it or not, I still have vague memories of that experience, more  feelings than specific details.

Pinocchio was powerful. The major themes were "let your conscience be your guide" and  if you go sideways there are bad consequences.  As if my nose wasn't big enough as a kid, it was a little frightening that it could even get bigger when I messed up. I have watched Pinocchio a number of times since then, and I am still amazed at it's profound message. Pinocchio, being  made of perishable wood and drawn to the dark side, overcomes his moral weaknesses and finds real life.

One thing was for sure, my mother and father enjoyed movies and the  movie experience at those grand old regal theaters, and they unknowingly passed that love of movie going on to me, popcorn and all.

#2 - THE ROBE - 1953

I didn't realize it at the time, but when I was eight my parents took me to see a very religious movie.  The Robe, which was filmed in magnificent CinemaScope, was simply bigger than life, it was my first movie blockbuster. It starred  Richard Burton as Marcellus, a Roman tribune in charge of the men assigned to crucify Jesus Christ. After the crucifixion, he gambles and wins Jesus' robe but  latter is tormented by nightmares. Hoping to find a way to live with what he has done, and still not believing in Jesus, he returns to Palestine to try and learn what he can of the man he killed. Eventually, he becomes convinced that Jesus was no ordinary man. Little did I know then, that some 30 years latter, I would also come to that same conclusion.


I can vividly remember walking with my mom, Irene Brown,  through the theater lobby after seeing the movie The High and the Mighty, and with a crystal clear whistle, I whistled the theme song from the movie. It is one of the last memories I have of being together with my mom. She suffered from the birth defect of a rheumatic heart and died at the age of 48 of a major stroke when I was about nine years old. Mom, memories and  movies. Till this day I am still a good whistler.

The High and the Mighty stars John Wayne as Dan Roman, a washed up co-pilot on a trans Pacific flight. When the  commercial airliner develops engine problems and the pilot loses his nerve, it is up to Dan to bring the plane and it's passengers in safely. With one problem after another, The High and the Mighty is the original airplane disaster movie. The cabin is full of passengers with every type of personality defect imaginable and features an all-star cast of Clair Trevor, Laraine Day, Phil Harris, Jan Sterling and ironically, Robert Stack of future Airplane fame. I must admit, when I recently caught it again on cable, it was kinda slow, but that whistling theme song still tears my heart up.

#4 - THE HUSTLER - 1961

I traveled about an hour by bus from Irvington, where I lived with my aunt, to downtown Newark to meet my dad and go see the movie, The Hustler. At sixteen I loved to hang around pool halls and shoot pool. One of the many interesting talents my dad, Merle Jacob Brown, possessed, was that he was a really, really, good pool player. It was fun to share that movie with him. Afterwards, we hopped a bus and  he took me to Ames Pool Hall in New York City, where the Hustler was filmed. There we shot some pool and he showed me his trick masse pool shot. Even though I never beat my dad at pool,  I still fondly remember that time we had together.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, The Hustler  tells the story of a small-time pool hustler "Fast Eddie" Felson  (Paul Newman) and his desire to prove himself the best player in the country by beating legendary pool player "Minnesota Fats" (Jackie Gleason).

It's  a story about winning and losing and what it means to be human. Describing the film, director Robert Rossen said: "My protagonist, Fast Eddie, wants to become a great pool player, but the film is really about the obstacles he encounters in attempting to fulfill himself as a human being. He attains self-awareness only after a terrible personal tragedy which he has caused — and then he wins his pool game."

I love The Hustler because it reminds me of my dad.  He faced a lot of struggles, like many of us, some of his own making. Just before he died in 1965, we had a chance to see each other one last time. He was unusually up beat as he lay dying in the veterans hospital. I thought I was there to let him off the hook for being such a absent dad, but in reality, I now realize that I was at his bedside so he could show me mercy, even though I  had been such a shelfish brat of a son. His last words to me were, "It's OK, maybe we'll see each other again." My dad was a really, really, good pool player.

#5 - DELIVERANCE - 1972

The 70's were a time when I was a long haired, full time traveling musician. I went to see Deliverance with the members of my band "Trinity."  Deliverance is a thriller  produced and directed by John Boorman. The principal cast members are Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, and Ned Beatty. They set off in two canoes down a mystery laden Georgia river and discover a wilderness of terror. The film is noted both for the memorable dueling banjos music scene near the beginning and for the deadly trip into unknown dangerous territory.

After seeing the movie, the band had a very passionate and heated discussion. Each one of us identified with a different character in the movie and felt that their character was the one who had it right. Karen, our bass player from New York City, a pacifist who wore glasses with no glass in them, and whose father was a Columbia professor that had committed suicide, saw the character played by Ronnie Cox as the most admirable. Cox essentially gives up after they are forced to kill a backwoods red neck, overwheled with guilt, he doesn't put on his life jacket while paddling the canoe and he ultimately drowns. Manny, our drummer from South Africa, a big, imposing, very confident, and physical guy, completely connected with the Burt Reynolds character. Reynolds was an "I'm an in control guy, that always pushes the limits." For Manny, there really was no other way to deal with life except to take it by the neck and beat the shit out of it. As for me, I related with the Jon Voight character.  Voight plays a  fearful schmuck, who trys to talk his way out of every conflict. But somehow, when Burt Reynolds is injured and out of commission and is unable to be the fearless leader, Voight is called upon to step up and take the shot. Despite himself, somehow he sheepishly pulls it off, and brings the group safely through.

Deliverance was culturally significant, especially with its true Georgia backwoods vibe, which I have personally experienced. Also significant  is how each of the band members choose to see themselves favorably in the characters they identified with in the film.  Eventually, Trinity broke up, as all bands do.  Nevertheless, this marked the beginning of seeing and then discussing movies, trying to experiance, learn, and understand what the movie was all about. 

Coming soon  #6 - Scarecrow - 1973