Victoria & Abdul
There are multiple pleasures to be had by witnessing a powerful, still-vital woman finding unexpected late-life joy of the platonic variety.
I was born December 26, 1968. I have seen a movie on almost all my birthdays, ever since I was a kid. Here is a list.
1976: "Rocky." My younger brother and I lived with our grandparents in Kansas City for a few years after our musician parents divorced in Dallas. I saw the original "Rocky" with a group of school friends. I don't remember whose parents took us or where it was, only that we saw it in a mall. I remember being alarmed during the fight scenes because the punches were so loud. I thought Apollo or Rocky were going to literally take each others' heads off. I also remember being struck by the ending and discussing it with the other kids on the way back home. Rocky lost the fight but the outcome was still presented as a victory. His real victory was making it into the ring in the first place after everybody, Rocky included, had written him off as a loser.
1977: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." This actually opened in November, so this screening was a repeat. I think I'd seen it four times already by that point. I drew the spaceships in my notebooks at school and in the margins of school texts, which you weren't supposed to do. I also owned several sets of "Close Encounters" trading cards. Wish I'd held onto them.
1978: "Superman: The Movie." Starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Saw this one at the Glenwood Theater in Kansas City. I was struck by how loudly the audience cheered every time Superman saved somebody or averted a disaster. Some people even applauded when he rescued that little girl's cat from a tree. This was the seventies, remember: movies often had happy endings or showed the worst in life and chronicled disappointment and failure. People were starved for a hero like Superman, or like the ones in Star Wars, which had opened eighteen months earlier.
1979: "The Black Hole." Saw this with my brother while visiting my mom and her boyfriend, who'd recently moved in with her, in Dallas. Nobody liked it, including me, although I halfheartedly tried to work up some enthusiasm for it in the car on the way home, including the ending where they go into the black hole. My mom's boyfriend (and my future stepfather) said the filmmakers were just doing the end of "2001" again but tossing a bunch of religious images into it, and it wasn't as interesting. Years later, I saw "2001" and realized he was right, it was a rehash.
1980: "Any Which Way You Can." Saw this with a bunch of my buddies from sixth grade. I hadn't seen the original but had no trouble following the plot because there really wasn't any. We all liked it but agreed that it could've benefited from less information about Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke's love life and more fighting and orangutan shenanigans. The final bare-knuckled brawl seemed to go on for days. There was spirited disagreement on the way home about whether two guys could really endure that many shots to the face and head without suffering massive brain trauma and dying on the spot.
1981: "Reds." I have no idea why I asked to see this on my birthday. Saw it in a Dallas theater, don't remember which one—probably the NorthPark 1 & 2, now defunct—after my brother and I moved back to Dallas to live with my mother. I didn't know anything about John Reed or the American Communist Party, Louise Bryant, Eugene O'Neill, the labor movement or Soviet history. I think I'd just heard so much about how different it was that I felt I needed to be able to say I'd seen it. I was bored. I was also just barely thirteen. I saw it a second time years later and admired it greatly. It's not an especially deep film, but it is wise, in some ways wiser about relationships than it is about history. To properly appreciate "Reds," it helps to have been through puberty and done a bit of reading.
1982: "Gandhi." I had forcefully advocated for seeing "48 Hrs." again. I'd seen it on another friend's birthday when it opened a couple weeks earlier. My mom and stepfather talked me into "Gandhi." I liked it more than I thought I would. It might have been the first feature I saw in a theater that had an intermission (which fell right after the massacre at Amritsar). We discussed what we'd seen in the lobby while my mom and stepdad smoked cigarettes.
1983: "Scarface." Went with my friends to a local multiplex, probably at the Valley View mall, though it might have been the Big Town. Told my parents we were seeing "A Christmas Story." We bought tickets to that but snuck into "Scarface." No regrets.
1984: "Amadeus." My mom and stepdad successfully argued me out of seeing "Beverly Hills Cop" for a third time on my birthday. I'm glad they did. I had no idea that a film about a classical musician who died hundreds of years earlier could be so funny, sexy and exciting. In retrospect, it seems obvious that my lifelong love of European classical music started with this movie, in particular Mozart's deathbed scene, where he's dictating to Salieri. It was that scene that showed me that writing music, writing prose and drawing pictures were all methods of transcribing the contents of the imagination.
1985: A rare birthday double feature: I saw "Rocky IV" in the late morning for the second time, because my younger brother hadn't seen it yet, then saw "The Color Purple" because one of my high school English teachers, a Black woman, told me she had seen it in an advance screening for African-American educators and gotten into a big argument with her colleagues about whether it did justice to Alice Walker's novel and whether it was skittish about lesbian sex and detrimental toward African-American men (she adored the film even though her friends strongly disliked it, but all agreed it made them cry). "Rocky IV" was even worse the second time around; it's easily one of the dumbest and most cynical "Rocky" films—take out the gratuitous music montages and it might have been 75 minutes long.
But I loved the Spielberg adaptation of Alice Walker's book and was excited to discuss it with my teacher when school resumed. She insisted I read the novel before we talked, so I did. The film showed me a different side of Spielberg and also introduced me to Alice Walker, so: double-win.
1986: "The Mission." Roland Joffe's film about European missionaries in South America. Loved the score, the performances, and the photography, but the sentimentalization of the mission itself didn't sit well with me. It was presented as a given that the place and its teachings were unambiguously good for the region. This was the year when my taste in movies deepened a bit and I also started reading newspapers for something other than the entertainment section. Although the movie year was defined by the triumphalist "Top Gun," I'd seen "Salvador," "Platoon," "Brazil," "Blue Velvet," "The River's Edge," "Something Wild," "The Mosquito Coast" and "The Color of Money," all of which looked at American and western values in a more critical or probing way. I was starting to read movies through a somewhat more political lens and not accept their values automatically.
1987: "Moonstruck." I'd already seen this one several times. It's still one of my favorite movies. I memorized most of Nicolas Cage's dialogue, including, "We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit!"
1988: "Dead Ringers" and "Mississippi Burning." Obviously I was in a rotten mood that year, otherwise I wouldn't have done a back-to-back double feature about murderous twin gynecologists and an exploitative thriller about vigilante FBI agents on a crusade against the Klan that, historically speaking, never happened. "Mississippi Burning" made me ill; almost everything about it rang false to me. "Dead Ringers" was great, though. I was moved by it and did not expect to be.
1989: "Glory." Saw this one with friends. I was depressed that my girlfriend and future wife was back at home in Oklahoma with her family. The movie cheered me up because it was so noble and the characters sacrificed so much. I know it panders a bit at times, but for a mainstream film that aims to appeal to everyone, it's reasonably sophisticated in its visual language, even in throwaway moments like those shots of Matthew Broderick's colonel cutting up watermelons with his sabre.
1990: "Goodfellas." Friends. Tenth, maybe eleventh viewing. The year that "Goodfellas" was in theaters, it was the default film to see, even if there was new stuff out that my friends and I were interested in.
1991: "Beauty and the Beast." One of the films that meant the most to my future wife and I during our early years as a couple. She spent Christmas with her family in Oklahoma then drove back to Dallas on my birthday, and we saw it together, for the seventh or eighth time, I think.
1992: "Aladdin." My future wife loved Disney movies and musicals, and the company was on a run with musical comedy cartoons throughout the years we were dating, so we saw all of them in theaters multiple times. We agreed that this one didn't have the emotional resonance of "Beauty and the Beast" or the sense of surprise that made "The Little Mermaid" so refreshing, but it had Robin Williams as the genie plus spectacular images and catchy songs. She was in Oklahoma with her family that Christmas and didn't drive back, I don't remember why; we weren't fighting so it must have been the weather or car problems. We saw the Disney movie again in different cities at the same time and then went home and called each other. This was supposed to make us feel better but it only made me sadder. I invited a bunch of guy friends over and we drank every bit of alcohol in the house, including the sake her father had bought for her during a recent trip to Japan. I woke up to the sound of a man urinating: I opened my eyes and realized I'd passed out on the floor next to the toilet bowl. My friend Steve was looming over me, entirely oblivious to my discomfort. This was one of the birthdays I'm least fond of remembering.
1993: "Schindler's List." My wife and I had graduated from college by this point and living in a small apartment near downtown Dallas. We'd both seen the film more than once, and worried that it was too grim for a post-holiday movie, but it was so excellent that we wanted to see it again on a big screen while we had the chance.
1994: "Quiz Show." Robert Redford's film about the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Fourth, maybe fifth theatrical viewing. Almost nobody remembers this film now, but I thought it was one of the best mainstream releases of that year, nearly perfect except for costar Rob Morrow's fake eyebrows and Massachusetts accent. It deserves re-appreciation. I'd been married a little over three months and we were talking about moving to New York.
1995: "The City of Lost Children." Second viewing. My wife and I had moved to New York City at that point. I talked a few friends into going with me, insisting that they had to see it on a big screen at one of the theaters that was showing a 35mm print with the silver left in it, which made the colors much more vibrant. That didn't mean anything to anybody, but my enthusiasm won out anyway. They all liked it, even though they didn't normally attend foreign language films and only one of them was familiar with the directors' prior work.
1996: "Eraser." I barely remember a thing about this movie. Saw it on DVD because I was in too poor shape to go to a theater. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in it, and he killed a bunch of people, and there was some kind of scene with people fighting on a plane, and a gun that could track people by sound or something? I have no desire to revisit the picture and clarify my memories. I was still slightly hung over from spending Christmas Eve night at the Lion's Head pub at 7th and Christopher. We left at dawn on Christmas Day. We did the "hair of the dog" thing Christmas night, which was a mistake.
1997: My daughter was about three months old by the time this birthday rolled around. My wife and I had taken to seeing movies in shifts because babysitting was expensive and one of us had to stay home and watch the kids. We'd see the same film one showtime apart, sometimes handing the baby off in the lobby. This year it was "L.A. Confidential." We'd both seen it before.
1998: "A Civil Action." Disappointment. Too much time spent on John Travolta's lawyer character, not enough on the inhabitants of the polluted town he was supposedly defending. Worth it, though, for James Gandolfini's performance in a small role.
1999: "Galaxy Quest," with my wife and several friends. A perfect afternoon. I still watch this movie whenever it comes on TV. A peerless example of a spoof a particular kind of movie that is also a great example of the thing being spoofed.
2000: "Cast Away." I was mixed on all the non-island scenes at first, but I've come to appreciate them. This is an essential studio film of its era, splitting the difference between restraint and sentiment, explaining things and leaving mysteries intact.
2001: "Ali." Second viewing on a big screen. Saw it by myself because nobody who hadn't seen it was interested in going, and everyone who'd already seen it once had no interest in seeing it again. It took me a while to convince people that they had no obligation to see a film they didn't want to see just because it was my birthday.
2002: "Rabbit-Proof Fence." My wife and I went to see Philip Noyce's film about a couple of mixed-race girls who ran away from the Moore River Native Settlement near Perth. We were both knocked out. A brilliant film without an ounce of fat on it. Noyce also released an adaptation of "The Quiet American" that year, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser; we saw that one the following day. A Philip Noyce film festival.
2003: "House of Sand and Fog." Saw this with my wife and a group of friends. We all admired the attempt but none of us thought it was as good as the movie itself seemed to think it was. Solemn and self-important. James Horner's music and the performances of Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly made it bearable.
2004: "House of Flying Daggers." Saw this with my wife. We both enjoyed it—it was my second viewing—but concluded that Yimou's "Hero," also released in the States in 2004, was ultimately superior. We took my daughter, then seven, because there was action and pretty scenery and clothes and we figured it would hold her attention. She had no idea what was going on.
2005: "Munich." Spielberg again—he's been as strong a presence during the winter holidays as he's been during summer, the time of blockbusters. Me, wife, friends; some disagreement about whether the plot's spiral into near incomprehensibility was a purposeful instance of form mirroring substance (the mission makes less sense as the heroes go along) or just an example of a movie losing grip on its story.
2006: My first year after losing my wife to a coronary brought on by a previously undiagnosed flaw in her heart. I don't think I saw a movie in a theater on my birthday that year, although I might have watched one on DVD at home at some point that day.
2007: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Johnny Depp's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical. No, the cast doesn't sing as well as Broadway belters might have done in the same roles, but the performances are terrific. I took my daughter and several of her friends to see this with me. Daughter loved it, friends were covering their eyes a lot of the time.
2008: "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." A friend watched my son, who was then not quite five, while my daughter and I spent the day at the UA Court Street in downtown Brooklyn and indulged a traditional father-daughter double feature. I chose "The Day the Earth Stood Still," because I thought a film with special effects and Keanu Reeves would keep her interested and it would give me a pretext to encourage her to watch the original movie. She chose "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" because the story sounded interesting to her. We ended up leaving "The Day the Earth Stood Still" because we were both bored out of our skulls; about halfway through my daughter whispered to me, "How far into this are we?" I said, "An hour." "How much time is left?" she asked. "About an hour." "Nothing has happened," she said. "They're just running around and yelling and stuff, but nothing is actually happening." "Well," I said, "in my experience, if nothing has happened an hour into a movie, nothing is ever going to happen." "Is there any reason we can't just walk out?" she asked. I said, "No." So we walked out. In the hallway outside the theater, she high-fived me and exclaimed, "My first walkout!"
We both loved "Benjamin Button," though. Taraji P. Henson's line, "Benjamin, we're meant to lose the people we love—how else would we know how important they are to us?" destroyed me. I was crying so hard I had to leave the theater. I sat in a stall and continued crying. There was nobody else in there. Finally the door opened and a janitor came in pushing a trash can on wheels. "Are you OK in there?" he asked. "Yeah," I said, "it's that goddamn movie." "Which one?" he said. "I said, 'Benjamin Button.'" He said, "Oh, yeah, I saw that one. It's rough."
2009: I don't remember seeing a movie on my birthday this year. Must've sat this one out.
2010: "True Grit." The remake. Saw it with my daughter, my son and my then-girlfriend at the now-defunct Pavilion Theater in Brooklyn, notorious as one of the worst theaters in North America. The heat was broken and there were plumes of steam coming out of peoples' mouths. It was a great movie, with characteristically indelible Coen brothers' visuals, plus eccentric performances of dialogue thick with period regionalisms, so I enjoyed it despite the unpleasant environmental conditions. But my son fell asleep fifteen minutes in. Later I asked him, "Why'd you fall asleep?" "It was cold and I was bored," he said. "Why were you bored?" I asked. He said, "I couldn't follow the story, and they weren't even speaking English!"
2011: "The Artist." Saw with extended family, the only movie everyone could agree on. It won the Oscar the following year. We all liked it pretty well but nobody was really enthused by it.
2012: "Django Unchained." Saw it in a theater in Cincinnati, where my wife's extended family had all settled. It was my daughter's first Quentin Tarantino film. She loved it and immediately asked me to recommend thoughtful reviews and thinkpieces so that she could clarify her own impressions.
2013: "American Hustle." I thought it would be fun. Almost every part was miscast and the plot didn't make any sense to me. The whole thing made me want to watch a real Scorsese movie, especially the DeNiro cameo.
2014: "Birdman." Another movie that everyone agreed to see but nobody seemed terribly excited about. My son, then 10, liked it a lot more than I'd expected him to, considering it was about a middle-aged actor's existential crisis, not really about superheroes in any meaningful sense. He later told me he enjoyed it because he could never predict what was going to happen from one scene to the next, and most of the movies he tended to see (mainly superhero films, action films and so forth) weren't like that. The preceding day, on Christmas, he'd asked to see Angelina Jolie's movie "Unbroken" because it was based on a true story and he'd heard there was a scary scene involving sharks, and so I took him. He liked that one, too, although he later read about the real story and agreed, along with my daughter, that what happened to the hero of "Unbroken" after the final credits was way more interesting than anything else in the film.
2015: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Second time in a theater. I am quite aware of everything that's wrong with this movie and I don't care. It has a good heart and compelling characters, and it's the only film in the entire series with real acting in every role. Plus there's something to be said for the extra-dramatic thrill of seeing a sequel to a film you saw as a kid with your kids.
2016: Haven't decided yet. I will let you know tomorrow.
FFC Gerardo Valero considers the flaws within "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens."
An appreciation of the Disney film "Something Wicked This Way Comes."