On reflection, Private Fears in Public Places is a great title for a movie

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Private Fears in Public Places
  • Private Fears in Public Places
Revisiting Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet at the Music Box last week reminded me of seeing the director's Private Fears in Public Places at that theater six summers ago. At the time, I was either unemployed or working part-time—I don't remember which, but I was in a position to go to the movies on weekday afternoons, and I did this often to save money. The small audiences often consisted of retirees, specifically old women who went in pairs and chatted through the films. I liked sharing the theater with them; they made the auditorium feel fuller than it was, and they made me think of my paternal grandmother, a lifelong moviegoer who, in her last days of spectatorship, would convince reclusive old women in her apartment building to accompany her to the show. She claimed to do this out of a spirit of charity, not any displeasure in going alone, and who am I to say otherwise?

Besides, it would be a show of ingratitude if I faulted any of her moviegoing practices. From my early childhood to middle adolescence, she accompanied me to more movies than I probably deserved to see (including, in one disastrous episode that almost spelled the end of ritual, Boogie Nights—but that's a subject for another post). It must have happened once a month on average. She and my grandfather would drive out to the suburb where I grew up and pick me up at home after Sunday school. We'd see something at a multiplex, then reconvene with my folks for dinner. I don't remember my grandfather ever liking what we saw (leaving the theater, the first thing he'd say was usually "I've seen worse"), but then he got a kick out of needling people. He probably enjoyed more movies than he admitted. In hindsight, I think he also liked having to drive 45 minutes to see me. For decades he had been a proud Chicago taxi driver, and he seemed most in his element when he drove.

As I write this, it's late Sunday night (early Monday morning, technically), and I can almost recall the special tenor of that ritual. Being at the movies with my grandparents the day before I went back to school, it felt somehow heavier than going at other times or with other people. In autumn and winter, the sky would be bright when we went in and dark when we came out—it only added to the feeling that I was hiding from my responsibilities when they indulged me this way. Kids are often pressured to savor the time they spend with their grandparents—knowing that daylight vanished when I was with them only added to my sense of obligation. How many worthless movies I tried to etch into my mind! Indeed, the first thing I thought of when I started typing was a scene from Curly Sue, a largely forgotten John Hughes family comedy that came out when I was eight. There's a scene where James Belushi, playing a con man, takes his daughter to the movies. He uses his pickpocket skills to swipe a bucket of popcorn from the guy sitting next to him, but then shares it with his victim in an act of mock-generosity. I think my grandfather liked the movie because all the exteriors were filmed in Chicago.

Curly Sue
  • Curly Sue

Admittedly, the old woman I met exiting Private Fears in Public Places didn't remind me of any of this. For one thing, she had seen the movie by herself. She also didn't seem very grandmotherly during our encounter. We were both staggering out of the film, one of the most acute depictions of loneliness I know and one of the definitive movies so far about the atomization of 21st-century culture. Neither of us had much to say, but we were drawn to each other all the same. Private Fears does that to you—it makes you reach out for human connection as if it were the thing that saves you from drowning. And so, I walked with her to Clark Street where she was going to catch a bus, talking about nothing in particular. It was one of the first times I can remember talking to an elderly person and not feeling like a child. She didn't dote on me, nor I on her—the movie made us equals in loneliness. Whatever that feeling was on all those Sunday afternoons, this was its opposite, a quiet terror that I had nothing to return to after watching the film.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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