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.”
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?”