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Ruebsaat-FoxTheater1-bodyne.jpgPhoto by TooFarNorth (Flickr Creative Commons)
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People on the screen ran away, the audience ate popcorn
In 1959, when he was fourteen and I was thirteen, my friend David took me across the Line from Castlegar, B.C., to Spokane, Washington, to watch movies. Spokane was the first American city across the Line from us. You got there by driving up to Rossland and then to Paterson, which was not a town but a low customs building with overhanging eaves that you drove under slowly enough for the U.S. official to see you and, in most cases (people in the Kootenays on both sides of the Line all knew each other), wave you through. If you were two boys on your own, you would be hitchhiking to Spokane, and you would be a Canadian boy and a former German boy crossing the border to the United States, and you would be much shorter than the kind people, single men mostly, who stopped their cars and picked you up. David talked and joked with these men, and I listened and learned about America and its specialness. When we got to Spokane the last driver dropped us off on the main street, which was wider than any street I had ever seen and was surrounded by high buildings. Spokane was a real city, not just a town, David explained: it was wide open. There were many movie theatres; David knew where all of them were, on the main street mostly, and when I walked into the theatres I was already scared because I was inside a strange, dark place after having just left an outside, light place that was also strange. I sat and waited for the horror to start.
We saw a movie called Fiend Without a Face and one called The Amazing Colossal Man and another called The Blob. The American Air Force had dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and from then on an invisible substance called radiation floated around in the world. Stories about scientific experiments going awry and blowing up in scientists’ faces were shown on screens and depicted in comic books.
The Amazing Colossal Man featured a scientist whose experiments with radiation failed when his lab blew up in his face and he grew and grew. He became so large that he could step over buildings and over mountain ranges. On the screen you saw his head and then his body rise up over the Sierra Nevada. His face was covered with scars from the radiation and he was naked except for a loincloth (the same kind Tarzan wore, only larger). After he stepped over mountain ranges and into towns, he picked up cars and threw them at people and buildings. Nobody loved this Colossal Man. He was taller by far than Jeffrey Banigan, the tallest kid in our school, whose father was the tallest man in Castlegar.
In Fiend Without a Face, a force you couldn’t see made stairways in buildings collapse, then made the buildings themselves collapse, made ships sink in harbours and made people on the screen disappear in an instant. Nobody knew what this force was or where it came from. Music cued you when it was about to strike and you searched the screen for clues about the coming event. When the Fiend struck and all you could see was the damage, not its cause, people in the audience gasped, and people on the screen also gasped or shrieked and put their hands over their mouths, which opened wide and were shown in close-ups. I sat silently and watched as the movie screen seemed to grow bigger and bigger with each tragedy. David always laughed in these dramatic moments.
Spokane’s art deco Fox Theater, newly restored (photo credit)
Some monsters in the horror movies in those days were created by scientists who had accidents; others came from outer space. The Blob was a red substance that landed in a farm field near a town in the United States. It began as a small piece of jelly, then jumped on and surrounded and devoured people’s arms, then their shoulders, then their whole bodies, then cars, and soon buildings and entire towns. People on the screen shrieked and ran away in terror, and people in the audience ate their popcorn faster as they watched the Blob gobble things up. Even the U.S. Army, with its bombers and artillery, couldn’t stop the Blob. The Army shot missiles at it and it grew bigger; the bombs the Air Force dropped on it fed it and caused it to grow even bigger. David laughed at each new development, and I tried to make my eyes do what they didn’t want to do: close. Finally, one smart scientist found a way to lure the Blob into the Arctic and make it fall into a crevasse the bombers had blown into the ice, which the Blob couldn’t digest, and that, as the music told you, was the end of the Blob. A voice came out of the screen and said the Blob would one day return. The Arctic, the voice explained, was above Alaska.
David said afterward that it would have been smarter in this movie to bomb the Blob with an atom bomb or lure it into a rocket ship and send it back into space where it had come from. He said the Blob could also have come from Russia, which was a red kind of place, or from other evil countries that the United States had come to hate and needed to fight against in the interests of freedom. Germany, for example. Blobs always came from such places, David said, which featured, among other things, stupid scientists. He said movies like this, where good beat evil, were all comedies, and when I disagreed and said they seemed serious, David said America was the kind of place where when dangerous things happened it was also funny, and this meant Americans liked to laugh in the face of danger. He said the Japanese, on whom Americans had dropped the atom bomb, were a different breed of people than North Americans, and the Germans, who had also been beaten up by America in the war but had not had an atom bomb dropped on them, needed to be beaten too, to teach them a lesson, especially the lesson that you shouldn’t drop bombs on freedom-loving people. He said the German government had been planning to drop an atom bomb on America, but the plan blew up in their faces when the American Air Force bombed German scientists’ laboratories with normal, not atomic, bombs; he said if the Germans had managed to finish their atom bomb and drop it on America, everyone in America would have turned into a colossal man, taller by far than Jeffrey Banigan. Wouldn’t that have been funny?
The people in the audience who laughed like David did when the people on the screen screamed and fled in terror from the Colossal Man or the Blob or the Fiend that had no face, were Americans who, I imagined, were used to catastrophic events (for example, Pearl Harbor). These movies came from their country, and when the music swelled and the horror increased, and it sounded like a celebration on the screen, I understood what an important place America was for its citizens and their large emotions. Horror, I thought, besides making you scream, can also make you silent: it is larger in every way than reality. When David and I walked out of the movie theatre after a double feature, which is what these kinds of movies came in (you saw them in the afternoon), the evening light in the wide main street of Spokane shone in from the sides, and I was surprised to notice that Spokane had no mountains around it, which all towns in our part of B.C. had. The light, blocked by no mountains, made the dust that floated around in the air above the street shimmer and glow, and the dust, I imagined, must have come from a nearby desert or at least a prairie, which, I knew from Western movies, surrounded American towns and cities. The dust, made visible by the slanted light on Spokane’s main street, also reminded me of the dust floating around in our movie theatre in Castlegar when you looked at the light beam thrown by the projector run by Mr. Musselman, who was also the school janitor, from up there in the booth. Boys flattened their empty popcorn boxes and spun them into the light beam, and the boxes curved through it like lit-up spaceships zooming down to Earth, and kids cheered and adults got mad and said the projector beam would set the popcorn boxes on fire.
When we hitchhiked back to Castlegar it was dark and the lights on the car dashboards flickered and their glass reflected the faces of the men who’d picked us up and who, I imagined, knew everything there was to know about electricity. David sat in the front and talked to these men about our adventures and I sat in the back and listened to sounds that were both real and not real. It was dark and comfortable in the warm, spacious back seats of cars in those days, and it was easy to imagine you were in a spaceship cruising down toward Earth and getting a close look. When we got to Patterson, the dark shapes of the mountains sloped down with their thick evergreen cover: Patterson is in a high valley behind Rossland (where our ski hill was), and when you got to the border and crossed its Line you were in the middle of a mountain pass. The highway sloped up from America and then down into Canada (or up from Canada and then down into the USA, if you were going the other way), and as we drove under the eaves of the customs building I always thought about the German story called “Die Sieben Meilen Stiefel,” “The Seven League Boots” in English, which I learned as a kid. In it the boy gets a pair of boots that enable him to travel seven miles (leagues, in English) with a single step: he walks mostly across prairies and low hills because the country in which the story takes place has no mountains to speak of.