I was reading an article recently in which Halle Berry talked about the risk she took doing that controversial sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton in “Monster’s Ball,” the gritty, graphic film for which she won the Academy Award. The scene involved naked prison guard Billy Bob and Halle having sex following the Death Row execution of her husband. It was an intense scene for an adult to view, never mind for the five-year-old sitting in front of me in the theatre. I guess the child’s parents were too busy on their cell phones to realize how inappropriate it was for their child to be there.
My first movie-going experience wasn’t much better, but for a different reason. The first film I saw in a theatre was “Krakatoa, East of Java” – a jarring motion picture that recounted the 1883 annihilation of a volcanic, Indonesian island by one of the loudest explosions in human history and the ensuing tidal waves that killed over 35,000 people. I was seven. Although “Krakatoa” did prepare me psychologically for first, “The Poseidon Adventure,” and, later in life, “The Perfect Storm,” it resulted in my life-long fear of tidal waves.
The experience has affected all areas of my life, and the fear is not confined to the recurring tidal wave dream. I’ll never travel to the Big Island (if you’ve ever seen the opening credits to “Hawaii Five-O,” you know why). Nor do I feel totally comfortable driving past water parks that have those large wave pools. Moon-lit, romantic strolls on the beach are inevitably ruined; even a Beach Girl feels insecure with a guy who keeps squinting into the dark, looking for high, aggressive breakers.
Car washes are a mental challenge, but are also oddly exhilarating. There’s the tremendous downpour of water, which frightens me, but there’s something empowering about guzzling the private label, bottled water while waiting for my ride to emerge (That reminds me, one of these days I need to ask the car wash manager about the sign that brags how they “recycle 100% of the water.”)
I have no way of knowing how the five-year-old at “Monster’s Ball” has fared. I cannot even begin to imagine what phobia developed from seeing bare-assed Billy Bob going at it, but he’s not the only one I am worried about. My own research leads me to conclude that “First Movie Paranoia Syndrome” is widespread. A number of years ago I was in a NoHo Army-Navy Store looking for a World War II-era trench coat and black knit mittens (with the fingertips cut off) to complete the Echo and the Bunnymen look I was cultivating. I overheard a young guy exclaim to his friend: “I hope I never run into one of those mother-fuckin’ zombies in an alleyway.” Judging by his age, I deduced that the first film he saw in a theatre was “Night of the Living Dead.”
Scooby-Doo must have had a similar movie-going experience because he too was afraid of zombies. Although lanky stoner Shaggy was something of a slacker, he was a first-rate zombie spotter. His prescient warnings like, “Make tracks, Scoob, it’s a zombie!” would cause Scooby to nervously gulp and exclaim: “Rom-bie?!! Rut-ro.”
Unlike Scooby, zombies don’t scare me at all. In fact, I’d love to run into some zombies in a Chelsea alley one night, dragging their twisted limbs and butchering the English language as they pathetically reached out – all stiffed-armed – to strangle me. Talk about telegraphing it! I’d taunt them with Frankenstein metaphors before putting the Chuck Taylors into high gear and, like the skulls of the subterranean dwellers in “Beneath The Planet of the Apes,” I’m gone.
After smokin’ their sorry asses, I’d rent the Oscar-overlooked, zombie-classic “Night of the Comet,” and chomp on a bucket of day-old chicken wings.
Tidal waves, of course, are a different story. One of my best friends once tried to alleviate my fears with his theory that all I would need to do is wrap myself around a pole and wait for the wave to pass. At first, I doubted I would have the arm strength to hold on, but Red Buttons survived in “The Poseidon Adventure” and he was a slightly-built man with no muscle tone to speak of. I had the chance recently to sort of test my friend’s theory. It was my first time at a W Hotel and their powerful “rain” showerhead caught me by surprise. Wrapping my arms and legs around the towel rack, I was able to hold on long enough until the Bath Butler arrived and lowered the water pressure.
I’m not a big fan of Disney, but maybe they have it right making movies about fairies, animals and princesses. What if my first film had been “Mary Poppins” instead? What’s the scariest thing in that movie? Dick Van Dykes’s teeth? His candy-striped jacket and straw hat? I might have become a song and dance man but at least I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.