(Although I’m writing this in 2016 when the idea of gender is much more nuanced, I am describing the 1970’s and my socialization at that time was still framed in the binary terms of male and female. In trying to document the experience of my youth, I hope that the tone of this essay does not come across as reactionary.)
At what point do one’s undifferentiated childhood friends subtly divide into the tribes of gender? For me, as with much in my young life, the recognition began with Horror, Incorporated. The ‘damsel in distress’ motif was a common mechanism of tension and release in the horror films that I watched on television. The female lead in these movies was threatened, pursued, captured, tormented and even carried like a bride by the monster. The male hero rescued the beleaguered heroine from threat, while implicitly reinforcing the socially-programmed traits of the genders: men expressed themselves through will and action, women were vulnerable and supportive. By film’s end the hero restored the status quo and reassured the audience that the world would be further populated.
The first time that I remember the ‘damsel’ possessing any vaguely erotic charge was while watching The Day the Earth Split in Two (also known as Crack in the Earth). Dana Andrews stars as a scientist, who in attempting to harness the energy of the Earth’s core, accidently causes the planet to break in half; his intentions were good. Janette Scott plays the love interest. During the last quarter of the film her dress tore at the shoulder. I forgot the fate of the planet and focused compulsively on the exposed skin whenever it was in the frame.
By age twelve I began to develop crushes on specific girls at school. Lori Nelson feathered her hair in the then-ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett style and wore orange corduroy bell-bottoms with silver details on the pockets. She was a farm kid and rode a horse competitively in figure eights around barrels during the Fall Festival, the harvest celebration of small-town Amery, Wisconsin. One day I read in the newspaper television listings that Revenge of the Creature, a sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, would be playing that night well after my bedtime. The movie starred . . . Lori Nelson. I lay awake in bed until my parents fell asleep, then crept into the living room to watch quietly. In the middle of the movie the telephone rang; my father had been called to the hospital for an emergency as the doctor on call that night. I turned the television off and hid behind the sofa while he worked his arms into his coat, found his car keys and left. I resumed the movie at the point that Lori Nelson dangled unconscious, in her bathing suit, in the arms of the lovelorn monster. This oddly charged image felt doubly forbidden because I had stolen my viewing in the middle of the night. The next day, tired in math class, I secretly imagined Amery Middle School's Lori Nelson in the arms of the creature.
On my thirteenth birthday, my parents allowed a few of my friends to sleep over at our house in the woods. We arranged our sleeping bags around the television for a long night of watching movies. Just after midnight, to wake ourselves up, we took a walk along the Apple River which ran near the house. This was the first time I remember being outside at midnight on my own. When I try to recall the atmosphere of the walk now, the Asa Nisi Masa scene in Fellini’s 8 ½ comes to mind; the children pretend to be asleep until the adults retire and then practice the magic that only they can apprehend. One of my friends pointed at the river and said, “What’s that?” We all turned and saw a mysterious yellow light, flashing rhythmically under the water. We approached it as closely as we could along the shore. We couldn’t wade out to investigate because the river was too deep and rapid. We had just finished watching It Came from Outer Space and concluded that a flying saucer had crashed and that this light was the rescue beacon for another space ship. (I walked back to the spot the next afternoon and discovered that the flying saucer was only a road construction warning light that someone had thrown in the river. I never told my friends the mundane truth, allowing them to circulate the story of the UFO at school.)
We returned to the living room to watch more movies and, one by one, my friends fell asleep. At five in the morning I was the last boy awake. The original King Kong played on the television, the primary model for the infatuated monster in later films such as Revenge of the Creature. The 'other' has natural sensitivities just like us, they want to belong and participate, they want to love, but instead they are shunned, vilified and ultimately destroyed. I now associate the scene in which King Kong disrobes the captured Fay Wray with the moment that night was first connected to day for me. I saw the sun rise after staying awake a whole night, completing the cycle that I had only slept through before that time.
My next innocent crush was Theresa, the daughter of a turkey farmer. During the sixth-grade we had a month of square dancing in our physical education class for which the boys and girls assembled together in the middle school gymnasium. I maintained two secrets during this month: I loved square dancing and I wanted to dance withTheresa. If I let myself to dance too enthusiastically, however, I would be taunted on the playground later, so I cultivated a fine balance between internally exulting in the dance and outwardly expressing the weary, put-upon disdain of my classmates.
This was the fall of 1975 and the animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes played on Saturday mornings. I created a fantasy, casting Theresa in an Apes scenario. Every night when I got into bed at nine o'clock, I ran the movie in my head. Each night it grew more complex, but the story always contained certain common elements. The apes on horses had captured Theresa in a net and taken her back to their camp. I snuck through the woods in the dark toward the light of a fire where Theresa was bound with her hands tied behind her back. I found a path through the bushes that emerged directly behind her and I untied her hands. I gave a signal and we ran through the trees together, holding hands. The apes inevitably recaptured us and I was knocked unconscious with a wooden club. When I woke up, bound to Theresa by the fire, I began to plot a new escape. I instinctively kept these fantasies to myself, hidden in the realm of the forbidden.
Early in high school I discovered Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps by means of a coincidence. We were currently studying “Catcher in the Rye” in English class and, on the same day that Holden Caulfield mentioned The 39 Steps was his sister’s favorite movie, I noticed in the newspaper schedule that it was playing on television. The scene in which Madeleine Carroll removes her stockings by a fireplace while uncomfortably handcuffed to Robert Donat aroused a voyeuristic thrill surprisingly similar to my Apes scenario: an mingled sensation of mystery, bondage, attraction and control. My own sexual impulse was emerging and the movies I saw guided my response, providing me with a visual expression of these new feelings. I suspect that the young, straight men of my generation were all metaphorically bound to stylized movie fantasies like Hitchcock’s Madeleine Carroll. As I reflect back on these memories from middle age, I also note that my early feelings of attraction were connected to the alienation of the monster and a sense of fetishistic peril. Within the confines of social puritanism, the chaos of strong emotion and sexual desire is inherently transgressive.
The first R-rated film that I saw with great anticipation was Animal House. I was only fifteen at the time (and probably looked twelve), but the owner of the Amery Theater didn’t turn away paying customers. I had had glimpses of nude women earlier, paging through Playboy magazines that a friend had found hidden amongst his father’s hunting gear. My recollections of those photographs are of tan lines and a little tuft of pubic hair that looked like the tail on a stop-motion character in a Rankin-Bass Christmas special.
The peeping in Animal House felt different, probably because I was older and was ready to be activated by the gaze. John Belushi’s Bluto, our onscreen surrogate, looks through a window at a group of topless undergrads engaged in a pillow fight that is not staged as spontaneous play for the women, but as a sexualized tableau for the viewer. The scene is a perfect visual metaphor for the cinematic voyeurism into which I was socialized. The movie screen functions as my window and I become the Peeping Tom; I am granted license in the dark theater, as in the privacy of my own imagination, to engage with a taboo curiosity discouraged by the light of day. The movies conditioned in me a voyeuristic relationship of subject to object that I had to later reconcile with my first attempts at real-life relationships. I imagine that cause and effect in this case are circular, emergent adolescent desire and the cinematic depiction of sex each reflecting and shaping the experience of the other as a behavioral hall of mirrors.
My first genuine romantic relationship began in the glow of Martin Ritt’s Hud. During my sophomore year at Lawrence University I was infatuated with Sara, who seemed to regard me merely as a friend. We went to a screening of Hud together in the Film Club series; I still have the printed schedule for that semester so I know the date - January 23, 1983. I vividly recall the stark opening composition of a car driving along the horizon line, shot by James Wong Howe in black and white, accompanied by an intense awareness of the woman sitting inches away from me. I was nearly overwhelmed when Patricia Neal's housekeeper made the nephew Lon lemonade and encouraged him to spit the seeds into her hand, an act both motherly and provocatively intimate.
After the movie, I expected to say goodnight to Sara but she asked, “Do you want to go sledding on the hill behind the student union?” We found a cardboard box, unfolded it into a makeshift sled and slid down the big hill together, spilling into the snow at the bottom. As we untangled ourselves, we paused significantly, looked into each other’s eyes and shyly kissed. Even as I describe the moment, I connect it to movie scenes in which childhood play develops into a first romantic gesture between young adults in It’s a Wonderful Life or The Magnificent Ambersons. It's still nearly impossible for me to disentangle my personal memories of love from the thousands of movies that I've seen.