Getting my cinematic education

In the late 1970s Westerly (R.I.) had a little arthouse cinema called The Wayfarer. Now the home of a Mexican restaurant, this narrow building had not been designed to show movies. Folks sat at small tables in a long room with a screen at the end; if you were short, you had to be careful how you positioned yourself.

It was at the Wayfarer that I discovered a whole world of cinema outside the two-screen suburban theaters that had sprung up all over America. I began to get my movie education, seeing the classic films that had never come to our antenna-bound television.

My friend Richard Whitman introduced me to the Wayfarer. Brilliant, sardonic, and a savant of literature, music, and film, he had skipped a grade to join our Class of 1978. He was a dear friend, not a boyfriend, and we stayed in touch after high school, when Richard was at UMass and I was at Keene State.

That winter of our senior year in high school, he often invited me over to his house, where he lived with his divorced mother. Sometimes he would make us dinner, and afterwards he would play guitar on his front step – Dan Fogelberg and Neil Young.

But we also went out a lot, and one of our favorite destinations was the Wayfarer. Here he introduced me to film noir, the Marx brothers, and Hitchcock. At the Wayfarer I first saw “Casablanca,” “Rain” with a young Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson, and “Monkey Business.”

Richard liked the Marx Brothers more than I did, but a night out was a night out. The classic black-and-white movies held me in thrall, especially Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” which we had just read in Mr. Cohen’s English class, and “Double Indemnity” with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. I loved the shadowy camera shots and smoldering-eyed heroines.

The closest to this I’d seen on TV was the haunting “The Spiral Staircase,” about a creepy killer who stalks a mute woman and imagines she has no mouth. This 1946 film occasionally showed up on the Saturday matinee rotation and was guaranteed to give me nightmares.

Before the Wayfarer, I hadn’t given much thought to my cinematic ignorance. I didn’t set foot in a commercial movie theater until I was 13 years old (on a school field trip, to see “Sounder” with Cicely Tyson), and I hadn’t had much chance to develop a film aesthetic. (In truth, my favorite movie was “Smokey and the Bandit.”)

Six months later I was in college. In the Mabel Brown Room of the Keene State Student Union, I saw “Psycho” for the first time. At Brattleboro’s Latchis Theater, I was introduced to Bergman (“Smiles of a Summer Night”).

But the movie that made the deepest impression on me in these years was a 1967 documentary, Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies.” The fact that I saw it all was a miracle, because a judge had ruled that only professionals and students in certain fields could watch it after a suit by the state of Massachusetts. Somehow Keene State’s progressive film club managed to get a copy and opened the showing to the campus at large. 

Wiseman, in his typical immersive style, spent nearly a month filming the inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital. The title comes from a variety show they put on, an ironic distraction from their otherwise abused and neglected existence. The movie was shocking in a way even Hitchcock could not rival. Naked prisoners were taunted, roughed up, and force fed; no wonder the state tried to keep the movie out of circulation. 

That we could be watching this grim realism one week and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” the next did not faze me. It was all part of the great cultural stew of college, where movies, books, music, and ideas came flying at us from every direction. I could never hope to know as much about anything as Richard did, but I had come a long way from my “Ma and Pa Kettle” days.

Gradually, Richard and I lost touch, and when I learned he had died suddenly (in his 40s), I was filled with dismay. I remember him fondly, and the great times we had in a funky makeshift theater watching Groucho Marx yuk it up with Margaret Dumont.

Note: A judge ruled “Titicut Follies” should be released to general distribution in 1991 and it is now available on DVD.

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