My first movie was The Wizard of Oz. I was three years old, we came late to the theater, and we sat in the front row, all the way to the left. I had never seen moving pictures. I had never seen anything that large. The witch’s cackle and the flying monkeys terrified me in a way I had never been scared before. This is my first memory, and what I most remember is that I loved every minute of it.
When I’m feeling down, I go to the movies. I always watch the previews. They give me hope. This summer several exciting-looking blockbusters will open. I’ve seen the previews. I know that at least half of them will disappoint me, but I don’t care. “Something to live for,” I say, to whomever I’m watching the previews with.
Movies, and to an almost equal extent certain TV series, have been pivotal to me in a dozen different ways. Star Trek and Twilight Zone opened my eyes to fundamental truths of human behavior and the workings of the human heart, filtered through aliens and time travel so they could get past the censors. Ground Hog Day sustained me for the first few months following my near-death experience, a time in which I had to learn everything over again and again. As noted in an earlier blog post, The Matrix broke me out of a mental deadlock and spun me into a strange new world of legal labyrinths, from which I brought back a keen sense of the difference between vengeance and justice. But one movie literally saved my life — not once, but twice.
For several years post-college, I was living in Brooklyn, NY, and had a girlfriend in neighboring Queens. I was riding a motorcycle at the time, and part of my commute between home and girlfriend involved the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the BQE. I was reasonably adept at dodging the lightning-quick NYC traffic and at monitoring the cars and trucks on all sides, but no amount of defensive driving could have prepared me for the imminent convergence, by a tractor-trailer on my right and an old Caddy on my left, into the space that I and my little Yamaha were occupying.
Seconds before the Caddy reached my space, I recalled a scene from the Mel Gibson film Road Warrior. In this film, post-apocalyptic Gibson is “Mad Max,” a cop whose wife and kids were ruthlessly murdered in the earlier film by the same name. In this film, if memory serves, Max is being pursued by two guys on motorcycles, each armed with a crossbow. In the instant before he’s certain to become a human pincushion, Max throws his souped-up police cruiser into overdrive and the twin cyclists shoot through the space he occupied and into each other.
My bike was an underpowered 200cc two-stroke, so overdrive was not an option. I did the next best thing and hit the brakes, hard enough to fishtail but not so hard I’d lose full control of the bike, and I watched as, like two enormous ballerinas, the car and truck eased into alignment and sped away.
Twenty years later, that same scene saved me again when a drunk driver was racing toward me, heading southbound in the northbound lane of Route 128 near Boston while I, in my underpowered Plymouth Neon, headed toward him at 70mph. It was about midnight and I was trying to pass a Chevy on my right. As I rounded a curve, I noticed that the headlights coming toward me were off, somehow, and realized, with only a few seconds to spare, that collision was imminent. My choices were to attempt to complete my pass and move into the right lane, to tap the brakes and try to fall behind the car to my right or, remembering Road Warrior once again, to hit the brakes hard and fishtail behind him. I chose the latter. Seconds later, the oncoming car passed through the lane I’d been occupying, followed within 30 seconds by a police car heading south in the southbound lane. I read in the local paper that the driver, a drunk 28-year-old, had been apprehended two exits further down the highway. Earlier that year, two teenagers had been killed by a drunk driver at approximately the same spot. I had passed their twin roadside crosses moments before my own near-fatal encounter. Born after Road Warrior had been released, perhaps they had never seen it.
I have often thought and sometimes written about the healing and transformative power of art, but most of my focus has been on artmaking. Now I wonder about the power of receiving art from others and take some comfort in the belief that what I produce, too, may in some way be life-saving, somewhere out in the world, somewhere in time.
How Movies Saved My Life
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