That's right, Kino boys and girls, it's Moscow International Film Festival time again. Lucky number 21 (or XXI, as those krazy dead Romans might have dubbed it) I guess it is, which means that, if the festival were not actually a festival but rather a human person, more specifically a human person residing in the United States of America, it would now be permitted to purchase alcoholic beverages (upon the display of proper identification, of course) in any state of the union. That's all fifty of 'em, for anyone who's countin'. Now I realize this may not seem too terribly relevant to some of you folks (and to be perfectly honest, you're right--it ain't none too relevant to much of anything... anything worth bleeding over, that is), but frankly this is about as relevant as I'm willing or prepared--heck, maybe even able to be when the nostalgia gets to working.
Just as soon as I get a glimpse of those old familiar Roman numerals dangling in various public places, I get thinking back to the heady days of that first Moscow Film Festival in 1978--a modest affair to be sure, but one of which we were all exceedingly proud nonetheless. You see, I'm talking about genuine accomplishment here, and there ain't no drug more potent.
Course, this here tale ain't just about Moscow, and the cinema, and heroic accomplishments. The truth is, Roman numerals would play no small part in the shattering events that occurred just over a year later, when the Eagles got themselves well whooped by those Raiders in Super Bowl XVI... but that ain't no kinda story to be tellin' in front of the little critters. Suffice it to say that it would be a long, painful while before the City of Brotherly Love and its God-fearing citizens would find the courage to put its finger-wavin', wiener-eatin' faith in another mustachioed Polish quarterback who owned golf courses and hawked hot tubs on the side. I believe it was a wise old fella by the name of Harris Toddle who once said, "To the victors go the spoils; to the losers go the mean-spirited jokes involving domesticated rodents and body-cavity intrusion." Jerry Penacoli sure as hell knows what I'm talking about--and he ain't the only one...
Hmm, guess I got a little sidetracked there. Anyway, back to 1978. I myself was only about six years old at the time, but I clearly remember sitting there on the back porch with mother and grandfather just a few clicks north of the Pennsylvania-Delaware buffer zone--we would discuss plans, draft seating arrangements, eat many circus peanuts... all in solemn preparation for the film festival that we thought was gonna change the face of northwestern Idaho forever.
On this one particular evening I'm-a-fixatin' on, I was most likely putting the finishing touches on the Festival's mascot ("Flimsy" the Preternaturally Grimy Pheasant, a lovable creature whose subtle charms were unfortunately lost on the preoccupied moviegoers of that late-middle Cold War era). For hours we had been filling the close July air with the sound of uninterrupted human endeavor, while the setting sun cast its fiery amethyst glow upon the majestic holding tanks of the Sun Oil Refinery down in Marcus Hook. It seems the shadow of tank No. 9 (the second-shift inspector of which was a wiry old-timer named Joe Hughes who spent just about every free moment he had away from the refinery running an unlicensed two-team baseball league [Joe Hughes's Little League, it was called] for local 9-11 year-olds, most of whom had minimal athletic skills and absolutely no desire or capacity for interacting with other human beings of any age. A few years later, I would play right field for the Giants against their perennial nemeses, the Bears, and like every other player in the league--including even the Giants' center-fielder, who categorically refused to play defense and would instead climb up and sit motionlessly in the squat cherry tree just behind the left-center fence--I received a hand-signed [by whom was unclear] "Certificate of Participation" and an 18" trophy, the silver-colored plastic statuette on its top depicting a wholesome-looking right-hander in mid-swing, the dull golden plate on its base engraved with my name, that of my team, and the words "World Series Finalist -- 1981." The golden plate was showing early signs of oxidation even before I had climbed into the heavily root beer-stained backseat of my parents' silver and burgundy Suburban the evening of the "Awards Ceremony" [i.e., an informal affair immediately following the League Championship Game at which Joe Hughes would stand just behind home plate calling out boys' names and distributing the mementos from a burlap sack that, on less solemn occasions, housed any number of plastic batting helmets--the kind with flaps on both ears, not the single-flap kind used by the pros]. Joe Hughes's Little League was shut down just prior to the start of the following spring after twenty-seven seasons, the casualty of Joe's rapidly advancing old age [owing to most of the players' complete lack of grounding in the "fundamentals of the game," Joe had thrown every single pitch for both sides in every Bears-Giants match-up in league history] and the generally well-received greed of the neighboring town's officially licensed "little league," the complaints of which about the abominable safety standards of Joe Hughes's league compared with its own and trademark infringement through Hughes's unauthorized use of the "little league" name eventually convinced most of the Hughes League parents [mine included] to fork out the extra membership fees so their kids could play baseball on teams sponsored by the regional Nike distributor and the notoriously brutal local police department while wearing "real" uniforms bearing official Little League Baseball insignia, and with an umpire who didn't also have to do the pitching. The new league's main field [there was also a second reserved for tee-ball, the "minor leagues," and girls' softball] had real dugouts, a snack bar, a dirt warning track, and sponsorship billboards hanging along the outfield fence. It did not, however, have a derelict cherry tree just behind left-center, and the Giants' center fielder was one of a handful of Hughes's players not to make the switch to the new league), that is I mean to say that, the shadow of tank No. 9 had apparently been keeping the same decent-sized section of the Delaware River's western bank in darkness for going on ninety minutes. At least I assume that's what happened, because my grandfather was now yelling: "Goddamnit, when is that goddamn sun going to set, or at least move out of the way here?! This is not supposed to happen! One hour and a goddamn half! The goddamn sun sets, that's what it does! No. 9! Tank No. 9! Karen, where's that husband of yours? Did he find himself a job yet?"
I had never been terribly close to my grandfather, but I knew he had a special connection with that old oil tank. Being, as I said, just barely six years old, I was unable to find an effective way of demonstrating that I was definitely with him, 100% all the way, on this No. 9 thing, whatever it was all about.
The thing is, sometimes it really did seem like that No. 9 tank was shading the same section of the river bank for a lot longer than it had any business to. I intended to venture down to the refinery when I was older to see if that section of the bank exhibited any unusual growth patterns (not that I phrased it that way to myself at the time, of course), but then once my father had a new job we moved out of my grandfather's house to a town some fifteen miles away. I soon forgot about the allegedly non-setting sun, and that No. 9 tank, and that mysterious stretch of riverbank.
After my grandfather stopped with the yelling, I took the "Flimsy" mascot design inside and turned to the thick binder containing all the correspondence with prospective jurors for the festival's competitive program. For a first-time festival with no name recognition, we actually had quite an impressive roster lined up already. (There's no need for me to toot my own horn by dropping names; those who are truly interested can look back into the historical record in order to uncover the jurors' identities.) Still, it was highly indicative of our naivete and general lack of understanding of the business that we actually believed we could convince the Cincinnati Reds' all-star second baseman Joe Morgan to make the trip out to Moscow in order to serve as chair on the jury. If we had thought about it all, we might have realized that it was dead smack in the middle of the major league season, and there was no way Joe would be able to take off ten days without like, a really good excuse.
I was about to ask my mother how much she thought the initial offer to Morgan's agent should be when I came to some very important realizations:
(1) We had moved up North just a couple months earlier, and I still spoke with this impossibly thick rural Tennessee accent that sent my grandfather into a screaming fit every time I opened my mouth.
(2) I disliked the Cincinnati Reds in general, and Joe Morgan in particular. In fact, you could say I had a rather strong prejudice against pretty much all second basemen at that age.
(3) In no capacity whatsoever was I involved in the planning and organizing the international film festival taking place in Moscow that year--nor, in fact, was I even aware that such an event was in the works.
(4) The dirty, heavily scuffed Luke Skywalker action figure with the broken light saber I had found on the playground across the street earlier that day was actually the property of a boy who lived two houses down. It seemed quite logical to me that this boy, whose name now escapes me, would publicize the disappearance of the cherished toy upon discovering its loss. Therefore, I resolved not to tell my parents or my grandfather about the find and to keep the figure's existence (or at least its possession by me) a secret for as long as it would take for things to blow over. I owned no other Star Wars toys at that point, nor had I even seen the movie yet, but for some reason it seemed of the utmost importance that I retain possession of this crude likeness of a mediocre actor, about which I knew only what I had overheard from other kids on the playground.
And keep it I did, until one evening when a friend and I ran through my father's electric belt-sander a good 70% of the Star Wars action figures that
Although I did get around to seeing a couple new movies for this issue--The Mummy and Universal Soldier: The Return--I can think of nothing in particular worth mentioning about them. Oh sure, the villain in the Universal Soldier sequel is played by Michael Jai White, who once portrayed Mike Tyson in a Fox-produced made-for-TV movie (called simply Tyson, of course). And The Mummy rips off Army of Darkness in a very second-rate manner without even really acknowledging the theft, then reaps tons of inexplicable praise from incontinent critical voices of a generation. These people have always been here, and they're growing more numerous every day.
So in lieu of even the pretense of a "review," I hope that you will accept the above blend of delusion and highly personal non-fiction--which I'm afraid is all you're gonna get whether you accept it or not. Its relevance to the nominal subject of this column may be limited, but in that it is no worse than any other "film review." Goodnight, then, and please try to do something worthwhile in the ensuing fortnight.
Next time... Star Wars Episode 1.