Over the years that I have contributed to this site, I have penned a number of tributes to people who have recently passed away. Although “enjoy” may not be exactly the word I am looking for here, I do like to have these opportunities to look back at someone’s life and work and attempt to summarize what it was that made them so special and unique. Perhaps my words have pointed readers in the direction of lesser-known efforts that are just as interesting as the works that made them known in the first place. Most of the time, these pieces are relatively easy to write. But this one is going to be more difficult—it will almost certainly be the hardest thing that I have ever written in my life—because the subject at hand is my mother, Patricia J. Sobczynski, who passed away on November 18th.
This will be difficult for reasons beyond the fact that I have barely been able to get through a sentence or two without tearing up so far. You see, Mom was kind of a private woman. She believed that the only times that someone’s name should ever appear in print is when they are born and when they pass. And if there was some way of wriggling out of those times, she would have happily taken it. However, there is no way on Earth that I can possibly leave things like that, because she is pretty much the reason I have the career that I hold today, a career that allows me a forum to tell you a little about her. And that includes how she encouraged my love of movies.
A few brief particulars: She was born Patricia Jean Kribble on September 7, 1941, in Moline, Illinois, to William and Charlotte Kribble. The family eventually moved to Des Plaines, and she went to work after graduating high school. One day, she met Raymond Sobczynski on the train and eventually agreed to go out on a date with him. Dad’s brilliant notion was to take her to see William Wyler’s “The Collector” (1965). It is a great and fascinating film, I grant you, but it was quite possibly the worst imaginable selection for a first date with the possible exception of “Possession.” Evidently it worked because they were married on August 26, 1967—a ceremony that was marked by a bomb threat, of all things. They remained together until his passing in 2011. Along the way, they had two kids—yours truly in 1971 and my brother, Michael, in 1974—moved to the suburbs and had, by all accounts, a good life.
It was shortly after that move to the suburbs that the incident would occur that would literally change my life forever. One rainy weekend afternoon when I was merely three years old, she left my dad at home with my brother and took me to the auditorium at the place where I would one day attend high school to see my very first movie, which happened to be Walt Disney’s “Dumbo” (1941). "Dumbo" was preceded by the Road Runner cartoon, “Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z,” the one where Wile E. Coyote dresses up in a Batman outfit from Acme and things do not go well. I know all of this not because it is a story that was told to me later on. I know this because that screening is literally my earliest completely conscious memory. I may not have had much of an idea of what I was being taken to beforehand, but when it was over, I knew that I had experienced something that I wanted to do again and again.
Ironically, Mom was not what you would call a big cinephile by any stretch of the imagination. According to her, she didn’t really see many movies when she was growing up, and even when she had the opportunity to do so, she would apparently decline more often than not. (She once told me that she refused to go on a date to see “Psycho” early during its original release, a choice that continues to leave me reeling to this very day.) However, that did not prevent her from helping to encourage my own interest in movies. Back then, one of the local TV stations would show a movie every weekday afternoon, and when they showed one she thought I might find of interest, she would sit me down to watch it. Sometimes these films were edited in a brutal manner to shorten them to fit into a particular time slot. But even in a reduced form, these airings served as a sort of preliminary film school that allowed me to further follow my interest.
The wild thing is that even though my age was still only in the mid-single digits, these were not exactly kids movies that she was having me watch. One film was Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” which she picked because she thought I would find Zero Mostel funny. There was “The Girl Most Likely To ...,” a hilarious 1973 TV movie co-written by Joan Rivers. In the film, an ugly duckling played by Stockard Channing undergoes reconstructive surgery following a car accident that makes her beautiful, and uses her allure as a tool to help her go out and murder her tormentors in a variety of bizarre ways. There was “Help,” the Beatles’ crazy 1965 follow-up to the previous year’s “A Hard Day’s Night” that I honestly think I prefer to its more celebrated predecessor. There was the legendary horror-thriller “Duel,” which she had me watch not because it was made by the guy who was at the time famous for making “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but because she remembered seeing it when it first aired in 1971 and being knocked out by it. (There would be a lifelong debate about whether or not “Easy Rider” was another one that she had me watch—she denied it vociferously but to this day, I swear that she did.) It is customary for someone around my age to cite “Star Wars” as the title that got them interested in film and that was swell and all but I was already all-in regarding cinema by that point and I have her to thank for this.
At about the same time that I was watching my first movie, I was already beginning to read and write, and these were other passions that she would encourage. Between the bookstores, which I would rush into with the kind of excitement that other kids would demonstrate at a toy store, and the library, I always had plenty of books at hand. And when I got bored with the kid-oriented stuff and wanted to shift over to something more adult, she was fine with it. She figured this was something to be encouraged, and if there was anything in those books that I did not quite understand, I would ask and figure it out. This would lead to some odd scenes and the occasional call or talk with a teacher wanting to know if I really read “Jaws” or “Raise the Titanic” for a third-grade book report and whether it was possible to steer me towards something a little more age-appropriate. I think you can probably guess her reaction to that. As for the writing, she and my Dad encouraged that as well—I remember receiving a dictionary and typewriter for my seventh birthday and being giddy beyond belief.
Not surprisingly, I was a bit of an odd kid growing up, and while I might not have been the typical child by any stretch of the imagination, she always encouraged the weirdness instead of stifling it. If I had an opinion on something, even if it was of a contrary nature, she was all for my voicing it as long as I had something to say. When I grew up and decided to pursue a degree in theatre in college, she did not try to convince me to follow another line of study that might have been more useful in the real world but which would not have interested me nearly as much. When I elected after school to pursue a career as a film critic, a profession that even then made the theater seem practical and stable by comparison, she never tried to dissuade me.
I never asked why she allowed me to follow these pursuits but I suspect that a big reason for it was because she possessed a bit of an artistic streak herself. When my brother and I were growing up, she used to make soft sculpture dolls and Christmas ornaments that she'd sell at local art fairs on weekends. When “Star Wars” came out and became the biggest thing around, she made me a Darth Vader costume for Halloween that was so impressive I actually wore it two years in a row. In junior high, we were doing soft sculpture things in art class and I, being helplessly uncoordinated in such things, asked her for some pointers since I clearly wasn’t getting it. She obliged and I improved enough that the Home Economics teacher—a woman whose bad side I had gotten on long before—publicly accused me of cheating by having her do the work. Needless to say, Mom raised the holiest of Hells. Mind you, not just because her son was unjustly accused of cheating—but also, as she later told me—because she didn’t want people to think that what I had done was representative of her own skills.
You will recall earlier when I said that Mom was not much of a cinephile. In fact, my Dad was far closer to an actual film fan, but his tastes leaned exclusively towards musicals, mystery programs featuring the likes of Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes, and World War II sagas. That said, she did have two favorite movies—the first was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” of which nothing more really needs to be said. The other is slightly more obscure and that would be the 1984 romantic caper comedy, “American Dreamer.” In the movie, JoBeth Williams plays a frustrated housewife who wins a trip to Paris as part of a contest to write a story using the glamorous international spy at the center of her favorite series of books. She gets knocked on the head and wakes up in a hospital believing she actually is said spy and gets involved in some form of international hijinks. Trust me, the film is terrible, but something about it resonated with her. And during what would prove to be her final days, I am glad that I was able to track down a copy and show it to her again as a temporary distraction from all the crap that she had to endure.
And yet, there were other films of a more offbeat nature that she also enjoyed, even if she sometimes seemed a little embarrassed by them. For instance, although she generally found horror movies gross and stupid, she really liked “An American Werewolf in London.” And while she had no real fondness for loud action movies, she had a blast watching John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.” She loved the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Wes Anderson; she was enchanted by the Harry Potter saga despite no burning interest in large-scale fantasy epics. And she was always down for anything that included George Clooney in the cast.
She almost never saw a movie in the theatre more than once but made an exception for “Heat,” of all things. She immediately adored the film version of “Popeye." And even though she was not normally one to burst out into song under most circumstances, she would cheerfully join in with “Sweet Sweethaven.” She even liked the black comedy cult classics “A Bucket of Blood” and “Eating Raoul,” which caused me to be a little concerned whenever there was a heavy frying pan in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps most significantly, she not only drove my 13-year-old hinder over 40 miles in order to see what remains my all-time favorite film, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension,” she even wound up liking it as well.
However, there was one thing that to me was even more important than trying to broaden her cinematic horizons, and that was to try to make her laugh. This was not always easy because she herself did not claim to have much of a sense of humor. Indeed, there were times when she would almost seem to be deliberately tripping up my attempts—she acted as if the structure of a knock-knock joke was somehow unfathomable to her. That said, she had a much better sense of humor than she claimed, and she was capable of coming up with zingers that she handled with such subtlety that it would take a few moments for them to sink in. I remember her watching my awards screener of “Good Will Hunting” once and I asked her afterwards what she thought about it. Her response: “Well, the character reminded me of you a lot ... except you are terrible at math.” As I said, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy over the years trying to get a laugh and a smile out of her and on those occasions when I did, I promise that there was no greater feeling to be had.
Beyond all of this, she just made me a better person and whatever traces of admirable personality traits I have can be traced back to her. She taught me to be smart and to never be afraid to demonstrate it when needed. She showed me the importance of treating other people decently and to reach out to those who are in need. She helped instill in me a sense of social justice that would become more and more important to her in recent years as things began spiraling out of control. She taught me to stick up for my beliefs and ideals, regardless of how popular they may or may not be. I am fairly certain that every person who encountered her at some point came away from it better for the experience. Outside of one brief period when she was under the mistaken impression that I had voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election, I don’t think I ever completely disappointed her, and I know that she never disappointed me, except possibly for that one time I discovered her laughing at an episode of “Friends.”
Now she is gone and I promise you that it is the worst feeling that I have ever had by far. The fact that I will never again be able to attempt another joke with her, or get her to watch another movie is simply incomprehensible to me. (I have a feeling that she would have really liked “The French Dispatch” and “Licorice Pizza.”) I will certainly be haunted by the various indignities of illness that she faced in the last couple months of her life. That said, while I am unspeakably sad right now, and will mourn her profoundly for the rest of my days, she did have what I like to think was a reasonably happy and fulfilling 80 years. She had a lasting marriage; raised two sons who loved her unconditionally; found professional success when she returned to the workforce; gained the daughter that she probably always wanted when my brother married his wife, Barbara; loved working her Sudoku and jigsaw puzzles; tended to the flowers that she grew outside—and, yes—even got to go to Paris.
Right now, I am heartbroken, but I suspect that as time passes and the grimness of the end begins to fade, it will be these things that I will find myself focusing on and it will be her making me smile once again, as she did every day that I was privileged to know her.
She always did like a happy ending.