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From the Wire: The Origins of a Cinemaniac

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire June 4, 2012 at 4:33PM

A novelist's memoir of his childhood as a cinephile turns criticism into autobiograpy.
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"Dawn of the Dead."
"Dawn of the Dead."

It is easy to forget sometimes how good we have it. While we're bitching about the death of film or video stores or American action films, it's probably worth taking a moment to recognize all the ways in which things are better now for cinephiles than at any other point in human history. I have thousands of movies at my fingertips, and I can watch any or all of them instantly with HD image quality all for one fairly low monthly price. I can rent or even buy movies without leaving my house. I can purchase them on my laptop and watch them on my television. Or my phone. If I can't remember which Tim Burton movie came first, "Beetlejuice" or "Edward Scissorhands," I can just look that up on my phone, too (and it was "Beetlejuice," incidentally). Even ten years ago, all of those things would have seemed just as science-fictiony as a flying car.

I was reminded that I need to be more grateful about these innovations by Colson Whitehead's wonderful autobiographical essay about his "Psychotronic Childhood" in The New Yorker.  He basically uses film criticism as a form of autobiography, and explores the way his early obsession with weird cult movies shaped his life as a writer. Growing up in the 1970s, Whitehead had none of the aforementioned luxuries we take for granted. I thought his perspective beautifully evokes what it was like to be movie crazy in this earlier era:

"I dwelled in a backward age, full of darkness, before the VCR boom, before streaming and on-demand, before DVRs roamed the cable channels at night, scavenging content. Either a movie was on or it wasn’t... Fate was cruel and withholding, and then suddenly surprised me with a TV announcer’s tantalizing words: 'Stay tuned for ‘The Flesh Eaters’ '; or 'Don’t go away! We’ll be right back with ‘Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.’' I couldn’t look the title up on the Web, couldn’t know anything beyond what its luridness conjured, and there was the frightening possibility that I might never have the chance to see the movie again. Who knew when this low-budget comet would return to this corner of the galaxy? Its appearance was a cosmic accident, one that might never be repeated. Weeks before, some bored drone at the TV station had decided to dump it into this time slot, and today I happened to be home from school with bronchitis. Did I have time to grab some baloney or a bowl of Lucky Charms before the opening credits ended?"

I'm a child of the '80s; I can't remember a time before my parents had a VCR and our house was full of movies taped off HBO that my brother and I could watch over and over. Those days now seem downright paleozoic compared to today's modern technological wonders, but Whitehead's piece reminds me how good I had it back then, and how different my tastes might be if they had been shaped largely by the whims of the scheduling department at WPIX. There is something exciting about the radom discovery of a movie found while flipping through the channels, but it can't compare with the freedom of choice.

Read more of "A Psychotronic Childhood."

This article is related to: From the Wire, Colson Whitehead


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