At the movies

Long before we met, Steph took a class in film studies at UW-Madison, taught by David Bordwell. Prof Bordwell retired in 2004, but he still writes a blog that we read, and we've heard him speak at Madison's Cinematheque. Stephanie had mentioned that she wanted his latest book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, because it's about old movies (and she loved old movies) and because it's written by Bordwell and she liked him and learned a lot in his class. But she ran out of time, and never bought the book. This will seem silly perhaps, but I might want to buy the book for her. I might read it myself, but whether I did or didn't, I'd definitely add it to the Shrine.
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This will come as no surprise to anyone who knew us: Stephanie and I liked movies. A trip to the cinema was something both of us enjoyed, before we met and all the time we were together. We went to the movies two or three times per month — more frequently if something interesting was playing, less frequently if money was tight. We had popcorn if we could afford it, or snacks snuck in if we couldn't. We held hands in the dark, and whispered wisecracks in each other's ears.
We were a smidgen pickier than your average moviegoer, as we generally skipped Hollywood's many sequels and remakes and blockbusters, all the low-imagination horror movies, the comedies that didn't look funny, and the endless series of superhero movies at the cineplexes these days. Instead we favored movies that had earned enthusiastic reviews, along with foreign or independent movies.
When there was nothing new that looked interesting, our reliable stand-by was old movies, either at home or at a revival screening. If a movie is fifty years old and you've never heard of it or the reviews suggest it's rather blah, take that as a thumbs-down and move along. But if a movie from fifty or seventy or ninety years ago still has a good reputation or still gets good word-of-mouth, that's probably a movie worth seeing.
We were always streaming old movies off the internet or inserting discs into our cheap DVD machine. You can check out old movies for free from the library, you know. And whenever we were impressed by a performer, a script, or a director, we would seek out more of that person's work. Thus we watched twenty Joan Crawford movies in the course of about two months, and we had similar living-room retrospectives for Bette Davis, Kathryn Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Quentin Tarantino, Cary and Hugh Grant, and many others. Our last homemade film festival celebrated Blaxploitation from the 1960s and '70s, with about a dozen titles from the genre — some were weird, some were almost offensive, but a few were borderline brilliant. We were planning to explore John Sayles' filmography next, but again, Stephanie ran out of time.
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We never attended the film festival in San Francisco when we lived there, because tickets were always beyond our budget. In Kansas City, where we lived next, Google says there's been a film festival every year since 1997, but we never heard about it while we lived there (2001-04), so we never went. But there's a well-known and well-publicized festival in Madison — the Wisconsin Film Festival. We've attended every year since moving here, and almost always we've had a marvelous time.
The first year we went was 2005. The film festival publishes its calendar a few weeks in advance, so folks can know what's screening when and where, and figure out the showtimes and venues where they want tickets. We grabbed two copies of the calendar, and spent an hour or so going through the listings separately, each of us circling more screenings than we could afford. Then we compared our lists, narrowed down the selections, negotiated about which screenings we wanted to attend, and which screenings we strongly wanted to attend. That's how we picked our festival screenings every year, and every year even the choosing was fun.
For our first festival, we decided we could afford to see three films, and settled on which three to see. I waited at the box office to buy our tickets, and it was a long wait, but the movies we'd selected were all excellent. Our first film festival screening was Double Dare, a documentary on the lives of two stunt-women. Steph always liked movies with a strong female protagonist and this one had two, so she loved it and so did I.
For our second year, the festival went high-tech and started selling tickets on-line, but their computer system really wasn't up to the task. It's a wild workload, if you think about it — the film festival runs for only one week each year, and all the tickets go on sale on the same Saturday morning, so of course there's a huge crush of people trying to access everything, and of course the server repeatedly crashed. Buying eight tickets for four movies took several hours — longer than I'd stood in line to buy tickets the old-fashioned way the year before. But we got our tickets, and the movies were excellent again.
By the third year we attended, the festival's web wizards had worked out most of the kinks, and ever since, ordering film festival tickets on-line has been about as hassle-free as ordering socks from Amazon.
For those first few festivals, most of the screenings were downtown, and before and after and between features we hung out at the Steep and Brew coffee shop on State Street. Steph and I both adored the neighborhood vibe — walking a few blocks to the next screening, and chatting with other festival-goers on the sidewalk. It made the film festival very much a part of Madison. Some of that magic faded over the years, as the festival moved away from its downtown venues. Now most of the screenings are at a westside multiplex, which has far less charm than such downtown venues as the Orpheum (built in 1926) or the Bartell (1906). The coffee shop on State Street has closed, too. Sorry, I'm an old man, and old men tend to grouse about how everything has changed for the worse.
Most years we attended three or four movies at the festival, and in all those festival flicks we saw a few that were only pretty good, but the rest were outstanding. I won't bore you with a movie-by-movie list or reviews, but I will mention that Stephanie and I continued talking about some of our festival movies even ten or fifteen years after we'd seen them. And that wasn't because we had nothing else to talk about, it was because we saw some very memorable movies at the festivals.
When Stephanie was first having difficulty walking, we went to a festival screening that was close to sold out, and an usher was waving everyone upstairs, to the balcony. The stairs were very, very difficult for Stephanie, and this was at an old theater that didn't have an elevator. I started saying something to the usher, but Stephanie said, "No, it's OK," and started climbing the stairs. For everyone else it took 15 or 20 seconds; for Stephanie it took several minutes, and her balance was precarious so she wanted me behind her, to make sure no-one nudged her, rudely or accidentally. Then we had to climb more stairs to find a seat, and when she finally sat down she was wet with sweat and wincing with pain. And still she said, "I'd rather climb those stairs again than ask for special treatment."
I thought she was wrong, and gently told her so. "There's no shame in asking for special treatment, when you need special treatment. If we would've explained it, they would've found us a seat on the main floor." I didn't win that argument — I never won our arguments. She was Stephanie and Steph could be stubborn.
A few years later, we almost didn't attend the film festival at all. Stephanie had her left leg amputated in January of 2016, followed by complications that landed her in three separate hospitals, before spending several months in a lousy nursing home. I'll tell you that whole story at some point on this website, but you won't enjoy it. Of course, neither did Stephanie.
The film festival was in April, but Stephanie was still in the nursing home. She could get around fairly well in her wheelchair, but they hadn't yet taught her how to shimmy from the bed into the wheelchair, or from the wheelchair into the car. The physical therapy team had been working with her, but Steph was struggling with the technique.
This meant that something as seemingly simple as getting from the bed to the toilet required buzzing for staff's assistance, followed by a seemingly mandatory ten- or fifteen-minute wait before two nurse's aides would come in, and rather brusquely lift Steph from the bed to her wheelchair, roll the chair to the toilet, and again rather brusquely lift her from the wheelchair onto the porcelain. Several times, when the staff took too long to respond to the buzzer, I did the lifting myself. It hurt my back, though, and I was probably just as (unintentionally) brusque as the staff, picking Steph up and plopping her down. And of course, if just taking a whizz was that much of a hassle, there was no way we could go to the film festival.
But sometimes I can be stubborn, just like Stephanie. I brought two copies of the festival calendar to her room in the nursing home and announced, "We're going to the film festival, so you need to hurry up and learn how to shimmy."
It was a bleak era for us, so Stephanie wasn't her usual optimistic, there's-nothing-I-can't-do self.
"This nursing home is a prison," she said. "They're not going to let me go to the movies."
"I've already inquired with the warden," I said. "This place feels like a prison, it's run like a prison, but it's not quite a prison. You are free to go to the movies, or anywhere you want to go. The only requirement is that you sign out at the front desk when you leave."
She stared at me for several heartbeats. "So … we can go to the film festival," she said, finally.
"Well, no, we can't go. Not because this place is a prison, but because you can't shimmy."
"So I need to learn to shimmy." She stared at me again, far longer this time, and then she said, "May I see the film festival calendar?"
I handed her one calendar, and opened the other myself. We spent the next hour or so going through all the listings, same as we'd done every year before that, same as we did every year after that. That particular year, yielding to good sense because Stephanie truly wasn't doing well, we decided we would only attend a single screening, and we chose a collection of locally-themed short subjects, playing in a matinee at the Barrymore Theater.
We ordered the tickets, and Steph had nine days to learn to shimmy. She worked very, very hard at it, and by the third day she had mastered it. The procedure uses a long, narrow slab of wood called a slideboard, varnished to prevent splinters, and laid out like a bridge from Point A to Point B. Lifting one buttcheek at a time, a disabled person can incrementally slide across the board, inch by inch, and then swivel onto the destination — the wheelchair, the toilet, or into the car. It was rather impressive to watch, especially when Steph was climbing — her bed at the nursing home was eight or ten inches higher than the seat of her wheelchair, but she was able to shimmy her award-winning butt up that hill.
I'd wager that not many people attend the Wisconsin Film Festival from a nursing home, but Steph did, in 2016. There's not much parking near the Barrymore, so we came and went via Metro's paratransit bus. It was Stephanie's first time out in public since she'd had her leg amputated, and she'd been worried that she'd feel freakish, embarrassed, isolated from everyone else. But instead, she said, it felt pretty much like going to the movies.
She had a Coke, and we shared a popcorn, and for a couple of hours she was out of that nursing home/prison, living something akin to her normal life. We saw ten shorts about Madison and Wisconsin, loved seven of them, liked the other three, and we had a delightful chat with a complete stranger who sat near us. It was our only one-screening year at the festival, but we had a marvelous time, and then we waited for the paratransit bus to take us back to the nursing home.
We signed out for several more field trips after that — to the library, to Steph's favorite Ethiopian restaurant, and to a movie at a multiplex in the suburbs. And finally, a month or so later, we signed out of that nursing home forever, and Stephanie returned to our apartment in reasonably good health.
Through our remaining years after that, she never went six months without thanking me again, for suggesting that we should go to the film festival from the nursing home. "It was a crazy idea," she said, "and I love you for it." It might not even be an exaggeration to suggest that it helped in her recovery. Between learning to shimmy and the joy of signing out from the nursing home for day trips, her spirits improved, and her health improved too. Probably it was just a coincidence, but Stephanie didn't think so.
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For last year's film festival, we bought advance tickets to five screenings — the most we'd ever been to, and then midway through the festival we decided on the spur of the moment to buy tickets to a sixth movie. In quantity and quality, it was our busiest and best festival. We had the same splendid time we always had at the film festival, and looking back it feels like a scene from a movie set in Heaven — a little out of focus and too good to be true. I vividly remember certain moments, like helping Steph find the well-hidden ladies' room at the end of a long hallway at the mall multiplex, which must have been frustrating but in my memory it's somehow comical and sweet. We had local-favorite Babcock Hall ice cream between shows at the Union South venue, and it was so luscious we bought buckets afterwards for the freezer at home. We ate excellent burgers and fries at a restaurant near one of the theaters, and promised each other we'd eat there again, but we never did.
We had such a good time at last year's film festival, Steph had the idea of going all-in the next year — instead of whittling our choices down to a few, we would each go through the calendar, and circle the movies that interested us, and then we would buy tickets to all the movies either of us had circled. I would take a week off from work, and we would do the film festival like we'd never done it before. We calculated what it would cost to attend two or three movies each day, plus the price of meals between movies, and the cost of parking, and we set up a savings plan so we could afford it by the time the next year's festival came.
And that "next year" is now. The film festival calendar is on newsstands and on-line, but I haven't even glanced at it. What would be the point? There are things I can do without Stephanie, but not the really fun things. Not the things we delighted in doing together, so very often, like going to the movies. Can't do that. The moment the lights dim, I'd start crying and have to leave.
Maybe I'll go to the movies without her next year, or maybe the year after that. Honestly, though, I doubt it.