I’ll be at the Highland Park NJ street fair Sunday, Sept. 29, reading from my Washington Irving parody ‘Rip’ and maybe from a novel-in-progress. I’m scheduled at 4:30 pm at corner of Raritan and Third avenues at a performance space hosted by Main Street Highland Park. I take the stage, believe it or not, after a juggler who’s on from 4 to 4:30!
Last week, on a sweet summer night, we sat in a neighborhood’s backyard and watched — on a big outdoor screen — Hitchcock’s classic “North By Northwest.” A week before that, we sat in a big living room with friends and watched — and listened via a great sound system — Martin Scorcese’s documentary about The Band and their final concert, “The Last Waltz.”
I got to thinking about how much the movie-viewing experience has changed. It used to be movies were seen — exclusively — in places called movie theaters. That changed, somewhat, with the proliferation of the automobile in American culture — and with an accompanying phenomenon, the drive-in movie theater.
Same basic concept, except that you didn’t have to get out of your car when you got to the outdoor theater, and that parents could bring their kids (in their pajamas) and let them camp out in the backseat, and that the sound quality was tinny and thin, and that the drive-in movies also showed a commercial for the drive-in’s snack stand, with dancing hot dogs and soda cups and popcorn boxes urging our parents to buy us kids snacks before the main feature began.
I have a memory of being a wee lad and my young parents bringing me along (in my pajamas) as they went to the drive-in to see an Elvis Presley movie.
Drive-ins have pretty much disappeared, of course, but movie theaters have so far proven happily that reports of their death were somewhat exaggerated — although I have to note that the other night, when we went to a local “art” theater to see Woody Allen’s latest, the average age of the audience was about 90…and when we were on vacation a few weeks and go and made a rainy afternoon excursion to a local theater to see “The Butler,” I’d say the average age was “one foot in the grave.”
These days, of course, even DVD’s and the like are practically old hat. Now we can download movies on our computers and iPads and smartphones. We can order them from the cable company and pay way less than the price of a movie ticket.
And we can sit in a neighbor’s backyard or living room and watch a Hitchcock or Scorcese movie, and it’s kind of like the old drive-in days, except we sit in chairs, not cars; except that the quality of both picture and sound are light-years (or at least decades) ahead of those tiny, tinny speakers which hooked onto Dad’s slightly opened driver’s-side window; and except that Jerry and Mark remembered just about everything — except they forgot to get the drive-in movie versions of “North By Northwest” and “The Last Waltz,” the ones with the popcorn box chorus line and the smiling, singing boxes of Raisinets.
There’s a whole language of church bells, with different configurations tolling not just the news of the hour but also such news as the death of a church member — with three times three bells denoting a man and three times two bells a woman, with other combinations of doleful knells telling the date and very hour of death, as well as the age of the dearly and lately departed.
But the midnight bells from a nearby church are not a sad thing to me. They’re welcome, not feared. When I hear the bells, I hear the comfort of tradition. I hear the old bells, and I think (of course) of the poem by John Donne about for whom the bell tolls, but mostly each deep tone sounds like a lullaby, a song of goodnight — balancing the tree frog’s trill, complementing the cricket’s castanets, echoing the gentle percussion of a distant approaching storm.
It might seem like something out of a mawkish movie, or something too good to be true, constructed from scraps and slivers of what’s real. But this is whole and true.
We sit by a dark quiet New Jersey lake. A fire burns within a circle of stones. Fish spring up and splash down into the water, heard but not seen. Then stars appear, one by one, until there are thousands, like an audience at an outdoor concert, each holding a single flame, as we sit together on a summer night.
And then there’s another light — the glow of my iPhone! I place it down between us, and as we listen to the music, the moon appears right on cue, and the smartphone plays brilliantly, and the tune is “Clair de Lune.”