The Good, the Bad, and the Old Movie Weirdos

pic“You’re an Old Movie Weirdo,” my girlfriend said to me. “I know you don’t think you are, but you are.”

Before we go any further, you need to know something about Maggie: she’s honest to a fault, particularly when it comes to me. When we met, I was a 30-year-old workaholic with a premature comb-over and a wardrobe comprised mainly of sweater vests and pleated slacks. She was a 22-year-old graphic artist with a nose ring, a tattoo, and what you might call an “alternative sensibility.” Like a hippie Henry Higgins, Maggie made me over swiftly and completely, and her handiwork is still in effect fourteen years later.

In exchange, I’ve turned Maggie into a classic film fan – nowhere near as rabid as I am, but a fan nonetheless. It all started on one of our early dates, with DIAL M FOR MURDER in 3-D at Film Forum, the New York City repertory house that’s been my second home since college. In the years since, she’s accompanied me to old movie screenings (on occasion), movie memorabilia expos (reluctantly), and three editions of the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood (mostly for the hotel room service). But my proudest moments are when I come home and find her in front of the TV, watching a classic. Cary Grant is her favorite star, proving it’s never too late to learn good taste. She even named our goldfish C.K. Dexter Haven, after Grant’s wisecracking rogue in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.

As in any good relationship, we’ve both learned from each other, and our lives are better for it. Which brings us back to her “Old Movie Weirdo” accusation, and the surprisingly – at least for her – vigorous debate it sparked.

One of my favorite things about living in New York City is the wealth of opportunities to see classics on the big screen. There are at least ten venues in close proximity that screen old movies, and I’m a regular at most of them. But there are others who frequent these establishments who are, to be kind, somewhat odd.

Go to a classic film screening in any major city and you’ll probably be able to spot the Old Movie Weirdos. They’re usually male, middle-aged or older, sitting alone, often with questionable grooming habits and almost always carrying one or more large bags. These  totes are usually plastic-handled, scuffed or otherwise in disrepair, and are often doubled-up, because one or more of the handles has become detached.

What’s in these bags? God only knows, but the contents are apparently important enough that they need to be on hand at all times. I know of certain people who drag the same bags from venue to venue, as if the tote was a physical extension of their being, a vital appendage without which they would be lost.

Sometimes the bags contain a meal, like a homemade sandwich, or a Tupperware filled with rice, or a thermos of soup. Often these culinary do-it-yourselfers have their food items individually wrapped in plastic, supermarket-type bags, which crinkle throughout the screening, adding a distracting accompaniment to the soundtrack. At one recent screening, a diminutive older gent in a rumpled suit munched away on what smelled like a liverwurst sandwich, methodically rewrapping the crinkly bag after every bite. My efforts to shush him were met with a faraway, frightened look, as if to suggest that interaction with other human beings was not a frequent (or welcome) experience.

On the other hand, there’s the overly excited Old Movie Weirdo – the wild-eyed buff who is so happy to be there that he strikes up impromptu chats with anyone within striking distance. This guy wants to tell you all about Ginger Rogers, and how there are no stars like her anymore who can sing AND dance AND act and that’s what they used to call a “triple threat” and wow, did you see the movie last night? It was so good! I’m still humming the songs! They don’t make movies like that anymore, do they? They sure don’t. Okay, it looks like the line is moving. This is gonna be great!

This type is often acquainted with every staff member at the theater by name, and is there so frequently he knows everybody’s shift schedule. (“Bob?! What are you doing here, Bob? You don’t usually start until 6!”) At Film Forum in particular, the employees tend to humor these characters, perhaps because their awkward enthusiasm is sort of charming. Or maybe they’re just scared of saying the wrong thing (“Who’s Ginger Rogers?”) and ending up in little pieces in the bag.

Whichever type you encounter, the overly social or the anti-social, it suggests one thing: these guys don’t get out much. They’re extremely socially backward and painfully, unapologetically idiosyncratic, usually sitting in the exact same seat for every screening they attend and, in some cases, wearing the same clothes day in and day out. I’ve often wondered if some of them are homeless, and just go from theater to theater each day in lieu of living quarters. But how you can pay for movie tickets if you can’t afford an apartment? That suggests misplaced priorities.

Whatever their story, the Old Movie Weirdos are a fact of life for me, whether I like it or not. They’re not going anywhere, and neither am I. As much as they may creep me out, or leave the auditorium reeking of liverwurst and body odor hours after they’ve left, they do add a perverse texture to my classic film-going experience. That does not mean, however, that I consider myself one of them.

But my girlfriend does, apparently.

“I am not an Old Movie Weirdo,” I protested, after arriving home from Film Forum one night last week. “Those guys are nuts. They all live alone with their cats.”

“We have three cats,” Maggie rebutted. “In a one-bedroom apartment.”

That was your idea,” I replied. “But we have a nice apartment. They all live in dark basements filled with old newspapers and memorabilia.”

“And I can’t hang up my dresses because our only closet is filled with your comic books and memorabilia,” Maggie shot back. “An every inch of wall space is covered with old movie posters.”

“But they’re artistic! And some day I can sell them at a profit…”

Maggie’s laugh interrupted my righteous indignation. “Like those hundreds of VHS tapes you’re gonna sell on eBay. We don’t even have a VCR! Not only are you an Old Movie Weirdo, you’re an Old Movie Hoarder!”

She has a point about the VHS tapes, though I wasn’t about to admit that when I was already on the dialectical ropes. When we moved in together I promised to sell some stuff and put the rest in storage. That was seven years ago. Not only have I not thinned out my various collections, I’ve added to them. And everything’s still in the apartment, in every available nook and cranny.

Maggie continued: “How many movies did you see today?”

“Three,” I said. “That sounds like a lot, but they were short. It was the closing day of the 1933 Festival at Film Forum.”

“And how many have you seen this week?”

I pulled out my Macbook and opened up the Excel grid I use to track my movie viewing.  It includes every film I’ve seen since 2007, with columns for the year it was released, director, cast and where and when I saw it. With almost 2,000 entries so far, this is the only way I can keep everything straight.

“You can’t even remember what you saw!” she said. “And the fact that you even have a spreadsheet entirely proves my point.”

The contempt with which she spat the word spreadsheet shook me to my very core.

“I can so remember,” I insisted, stalling as I counted. “Um…sixteen.”

“You’ve seen sixteen movies at Film Forum in the last week?”

“No,” I said. “Fifteen at Film Forum. The other one was at the IFC Center, but that was from 1935, not 1933, so it doesn’t count.”

“Again, this is my point,” she said. “You’ve gone to the same theater every day for the last seven days and seen at least two movies per day. Then you went to another theater and saw a third.”

“It was actually before,” I corrected. “The one at IFC was an 11 a.m. screening. I got up early.”

Whatever,” she said. “And I’ve been asking to see THE HOBBIT since December.”

“So we’ll go see that tomorrow.”

“We can’t. It’s closed.”

“Oops. Sorry.”

For the record, she’s right about my bias against new movies. I almost never see them. I have nothing against them, per se. It’s just that, I won’t turn down an opportunity to watch a classic respectfully presented on the big screen in order to see some cacophonous blockbuster in a multiplex filled with people texting. We saw LES MISERABLES on New Year’s Eve, and I got into two separate arguments with people using cell phones. Nobody pulls out a phone during an old movie at Film Forum. If you do, you might end up in the bag.

“I’m just saying, you make a distinction about yourself that I don’t think anyone else makes. The people who work at Film Forum see you there every night for weeks at a time. You think they don’t consider you one of the Old Movie Weirdos?”

“But those guys, with their bags…”

“You carry your backpack every day,” she replied. “And it weighs a ton.”

“But they always sit in the same exact seat!”

“So do you.”

“And they wear the same clothes!”

“How many times this week have you worn that hoodie?”

“But they talk your ear off while you’re waiting on the line,” I said. “They’ve done it to you!”

“And you talk to people about old movies all day on Twitter. And you write a blog, and you do podcasts. These guys probably don’t even have computers. And they certainly aren’t flying to LA for a classic film festival with thousands of fans. This is probably the highlight of their day – just like it’s the highlight of your day. There’s no difference…”

“But I have you!” I said. “I guarantee you none of the Old Movie Weirdos are going home and having sex with a hot girl.”

“Stop hinting,” she replied, shooting me a side eye. “Or you won’t be either.”

And this is really the crux of the matter. When I met Maggie, I had spent most of my life engaging in various fan-ish endeavors. I even skipped my senior prom for a Dark Shadows Festival in Newark, New Jersey. I was comfortable with who I was, but Maggie gave me a different identity – and something a lot more fun to do with my free time. I was the weirdo who got the girl, and lived happily ever after.

But, to paraphrase Sondheim, “When you’re a weirdo, you’re a weirdo all the way. From your first fan club meeting, to your last dying day.”

For the last decade and a half, she’s been the antidote to the inherent weirdo-ism I can’t shake, or don’t want to shake. Every time I go to a convention, memorabilia show, or film festival – any event where odd guys in my general age group congregate – I wear Maggie’s presence on my arm like a badge of honor. Everyone stares at my girlfriend like she’s a celebrity, and I get to go home feeling better about myself. And on the rare occasions she agrees to come to an old movie screening, I drag her up to the concession stand as if to say, “See? This is my girlfriend. And my girlfriend and I will now order some popcorn, while the other weirdos sit by themselves and eat their liverwurst sandwiches out of crinkly bags.”

In life, all of us play the character we want to play, with varying degrees of connection to reality. What Maggie was asking me to do was to stop acting, and to start being. That’s what I get for showing her too many Kazan films.

“Just be who you are.’” she said. “You’re the least weird of the Old Movie Weirdos. Be proud of that. Obviously, I don’t mind. I’ve stayed around this long.”

I thought about this for a minute, and finally said the one thing I’ve wanted to say to Maggie for a very long time.

“Does this mean I can keep the VHS tapes?”

2012_07_27_Film-Forum

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
This entry was posted in Classic Film, Film Forum, IFC Center, Screening Report and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to The Good, the Bad, and the Old Movie Weirdos

  1. nandiaf says:

    Great post. Very funny (loved the liverwust sandwich (although I am clueless regarding the contents: liver, perhaps?), sarcastic and witty. In the end, we’re all who we are and we’d better embrace that.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks. Liverwurst is a type of meat made from pigs’ livers. It can be served in sausage form, or can be spreadable. My grandmother used to fry it in patties, though I don’t think I ever had any that she made. The smell is very distinctive.

  2. alysonkrier says:

    I want the lifestyle of an Old Movie Weirdo! I might be half way there, I do see movies by myself and often carry an old backpack (I’m not going to leave my laptop in the car for 2 hours…I may have a snack in there too). Sadly, my area doesn’t show old movies often, but when they do I try my hardest to be there, sometimes showing off my awesome husband who is getting better at identifying classic film stars. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Great writing, Will!

    I think I probably identify a little too closely for comfort to the overly-social film weirdo who knows all the theater staff by name. :)

    Be careful about hoarding stuff…I don’t want to see you in your apartment one day on a reality TV show that focuses on people who have trouble letting go of ‘stuff’. Getting rid of those old VHS tapes and comic books so Maggie can hang up some dresses will go a LONG way in your relationship.

    You’re very lucky to have Maggie in your life…she’s a great lady. Looking forward to seeing you guys again in LA and hopefully hanging out a little (when we’re not in the dark of an air-conditioned theater.)

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Joel. My hoarding goes way back to early childhood. As a little kid I used to collect everything from wine corks to bottle caps to spent bullet shells that I collected from under the back porch of my grandfather’s hunting cabin in upstate New York.

      And yes, Maggie is a keeper. Coincidentally I just got another poster in the mail, the day I posted this piece! Luckily she likes it.

  4. Aurora says:

    Um…lingering body odor. A smell-o-round post! A match made in heaven it seems. Fun read, Will. Here’s to Maggie’s weirdo!

    Aurora

  5. Jennifer says:

    Such a funny post, Will! I’m jealous of the number of classic films you manage to see – the fact that you see them in theaters is simply mind-boggling to someone who doesn’t live in a major metropolis. Still, I know just the type of “Old Movie Weirdo” you mean – we get those guys at library screenings all the time. Hope Maggie continues to humor you for years to come!

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Jennifer. I was the projectionist for my local library during college (I lived at home and commuted) and the same types of guys would show up back then (late ’80s) that I see now. There’s something about old movies that attracts a certain type of person.

  6. This made me laugh, and reminds me of every time my husband also calls me a “Classic Film Weirdo” I have an entire room in the attic that is redone and it is for all of my Classic film posters and autographs because of the limited amount of sunlight to damage them. My husband wants to make it a game room but, I will not allow that to happen. After ever film festival we attend he reminds me that I am “One of them” and I am okay with that.
    Nikki

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Nikki. I have a gigantic collection of autographed pictures as well. I used to keep them displayed but we ran out of room. I Like your idea of a dedicated room. That’s hard to do in a small apartment, but maybe someday.

  7. Paula says:

    Will, this a great post! What I get from it is how lucky you guys are to have each other and how jealous I am of all the classics you get to see on a big screen…hence I think I may be an “Old Movie Weirdo,” and Tim probably is too….getting weirder by the day (though i’m the one who shushes people in cinemas) ;)

  8. Louisa says:

    I was laughing out loud reading this. So well written too.

  9. I’d swear that the only sandwiches people ever eat in public are liverwurst. Though every time that occurs to me–until this very moment always triggered by the odor itself–my next hope is: Gawd, I hope that’s liverwurst that I’m smelling!

    More power to the old movie weirdos though. I fit their demographic, I just don’t like going to the movies alone … and would like to think I’d eat before I got there if I did!

    Now anxiously awaiting your report on all those movies!

    • willmckinley says:

      Cliff, thanks. I actually started out writing a screening report on the 1933 Festival at Film Forum, but then it morphed into this. I saw 30 of the 66 films in the series, as well as 19 shorts. I dont even know where to begin in reporting about it, but I’ll figure something out…

  10. Sarah says:

    I could not love this post any more if I tried. It really makes me feel better about myself. I don’t feel so bad about my spreadsheet now (though I’ve only had it since January 2012…damn). We won’t even discuss my collection of VHS tapes (no VCR here either). Maggie sounds like the best, I already love her. Cheers to both of you! There’s a lot worse things than being an Old Movie Weirdo, and you do it with class and humor, Will. I’m so glad you write like you do about it all, it’s so enjoyable. Did I ever mention you should quit your day job and just watch and write about movies all day? ;) This post proves one more time that you should do it.

    Thanks for this!

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Sarah. You are so nice. Honestly, I think the spreadsheet makes perfect sense. If you watch a lot of movies (like we do), with a lot of the same actors in them, it’s really the only way to keep them straight.I’m glad to hear you’re reluctant to part with your VHS collection, too. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

      • Sarah says:

        I agree, the spreadsheet helps me keep track of things better than, say iMDB. I love it. I keep adding fields to it, but hey, it’s fun and organized! And a great system for finding several movies with the same actor, director, etc.

        Your post scored me points last night with Hubby when I gave him your post to read. I think he was relieved that his wife isn’t the only one taking the fandom to another level. He didn’t even bother to mention the VHS boxes downstairs for a change. Progress! I owe ya one ;)

        You guys have a terrific weekend!

  11. Almost all the previous comments have said it all: hilarious post, very thought provoking, and, oh, so very true. You are so observant, that it made me aware of how true your musings really are.

  12. At least you live in New York City, where you fit in with all the other old-movie wierdos. In Texas there are hardly an repertory screenings, so I really stand out. My wife complains that I have a closet full of 16mm films, and that I volunteer to screen them everywhere (rather than charge a fee to do it). She only allows movie posters and photos on the wall when they match her color scheme for the room. And I have a stack of BluRays of “old” movies that I’ve bought that I may never have time to watch until the kids go to college. She doesn’t understand how I can go to a movie festival like Cinecon and do nothing but watch movies for five days.

    • willmckinley says:

      “She only allows movie posters and photos on the wall when they match her color scheme for the room.” HA. My girlfriend requires that any new posters must “fit our theme.” And yes, I am lucky!

  13. I sat next to an overly excited Old Movie Weirdo at the TCM/Jane Powell event the other night. I thought he was delightful.

  14. Laura says:

    This was such a fun read! Having spent a lot of time at classic movies up at UCLA in the last few days, I’ve definitely run into the types you describe. What is *with* those bags?! Then there was the very talkative gentleman in line who wanted me to know he was in a documentary about movie fans…

    Since, like you, I attend a number of screenings alone, I can also relate to having my husband or kids come with me and feeling as though it’s saying to the theater employees or “regulars” “See, I’ve really got a life!” LOL.

    But really, when it comes to going to classic movies being the highlight of your day, well, why not? As my dad says about the (amazing) pace at which he consumes movies, “Some retirees fish or golf. I watch movies!” (In my case the obsession was passed on from him and in turn to my kids — I’ve already got one kid in “the business” and another who aspires to follow her to USC Cinema School.) It’s a happy way to be. :)

    Great writing, Will!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks so much Laura. I think I would like your father. He sounds like my kind of guy.

      After he retired, my dad used to call me all the time to tell me what he was watching on TCM. One of our last conversations was about Orson Welles. He said, “Welles was a misunderstood genius,” which is not necessarily the kind of thing you expect to hear from a retired mechanic.

  15. I think I’m one tote bag away from being an Old Movie Weirdo. My salvation may be that I still have a working VCR for my tapes.

    Oh Lord, it’s funny because it’s true.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Paddy. The consensus (at least on Twitter) seems to be that Old Movie Weirdo is a term that should be reclaimed, like various epithets that have been transformed into terms of empowerment. So we should be proud of our Old Movie Weirdo-ism! I’m still not bringing sandwiches to the movies, though.

  16. I nearly spewed my tea all over the screen when I read your description of these folks bringing their own food to the theatre. SO TRUE!!! However, having said that, I think I’m in danger of becoming the chatty type of weirdo…but at least I don’t bring my own bagged lunch…yet…

    Fabulous post, and nice photo too. :)

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks. I wouldn’t mind the chatting if it was two-way. But a lot of times these guys don’t seem capable of an actual conversation. I wish they were, because they know a lot – way more than I do.

  17. muriel says:

    I am not an old movie weirdo, although I live in an primitive farmhouse with several cats, but I never go to festivals. if I did, I would bring some bag that would contain at the very least a notebook and pen, some needlework, chapstick, and some lunch because why waste money? I never watch new movies, and definitely prefer B&W.
    But I do suffer from the old movie disease, which I first read about in a Jean Shepherd story.
    The symptoms are, once the movie title starts, you have to watch the entire movie. Or, you turn start to record the movie for later. Thanks to recording devices, a person can do this. In the time before VCRs, the old movie disease sufferer had to stop and watch the movie.
    I am particularly susceptible to the opening bar of a movie with the distinctive sound of a Miklo Rosza soundtrack.
    As long as I turn off the TV before the studio logo ends, I can walk away without a qualm.

  18. Jeff Flugel says:

    Wonderfully funny, honest and well-written post! Add me to the long list of people jealous of your access to frequent screenings of classic films. Sounds like you have a definite winner in Maggie…it’s great that she accepts you for who you are (and great that you’ve turned her into a classic movie fan).

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  22. John says:

    I am in NYC and would love you to dedicate a regular monthly post to films coming up in NYC area if possible?

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  25. Meredith93 says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and always enjoy reading your tweets. I admit I’m the 2nd kind of “old movie weirdo” you described–overly enthusiastic and I always want to talk about the latest classic movie I’ve discovered, or one of my old favorites. The trouble is, I don’t know many people in “real life” who I can go to and spew out all my thoughts on a particular film without feeling like I’m completely bothering them, except for my grandparents. And we have enjoyable conversations about old films every so often; it’s great fun. Since I live in a small town in MO, I don’t get to watch classic films on the big screen screen often but when I do, I get a great kick out of it. It’s sort of euphoric. I’m so glad that I’m able to connect with other “old movie weirdos” on social media. I learn a lot and have so much fun interacting with people all over the world. It’s almost like a tight-knit community.

    • willmckinley says:

      Meredith, I felt the same way when I was a kid and obsessed with the Marx Bros. and movies no one else had ever heard of. If only Twitter had existed in 1980. Thankfully we can all geek out now with our on-line friends and nobody thinks we’re weird. (Ot at least too weird.)

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  28. MC says:

    What a funny piece, Will! I guess I’m another old movie weirdo. I don’t live in a city with much opportunity for seeing classics in the movie theater, but I do have my spreadsheet of the pre-1970 movies I own (no VHS, but almost 1,000 DVDS – insanity!) and goodness knows I love my TCM. It’s good to see you owning it. There are a lot worse things someone could be than an old movie weirdo. :-)

    I read once that David Duchovny thought Scully was Mulder’s “human credential” on The X-Files – the person in his life who kept him from being completely crazy. Sounds like Maggie serves that function for you. ;-)

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  33. Bruce says:

    Love this post so much. Laughed till I cried. Never knew what to call myself until now. Tell me an address and I will send you my EXTRA VCR… Long live Maggie!

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