Thursday, June 28, 2007

Talk Show: Dick Cavett Speaks Again

June 27, 2007, 9:25 pm
Cinema Days

How clearly I recall hearing a friend who was a World War II vet say, probably in the late fifties, “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days we’ll see two people actually goin’ at it on the screen.” He died not long after that, and so failed to see his seeds of suspicion blossom into an overripe orchard.

Some cineaste will have to tell me when the first onscreen coitus was simulated, but what was all but unthinkable back then is all but unavoidable now.

When I was a kid attending movies, love scenes (old style, where kissing was the high point) were cues to groan, get up and go back to the lobby to buy Milk Duds and ice cream sandwiches and Turkish Chewing Taffy and those wax bottles of a cloying sugar liquid, and numerous other causes of massive dentistry at an early age. Upon returning, the odious love scene usually had passed. In this age of celluloid full-frontal, are today’s kids so jaded that they get up and get their molar-destroying goodies during today’s onscreen trysts?

My purportedly better than average IQ failed for years to help me figure out what to me were two puzzling movie non sequiturs: the censor-evading symbolism of a passionate kissing scene that dissolved into fireworks exploding in the night sky, and its companion, the less subtle train entering a tunnel. (See, for example, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” In that one, the lovers were at least on a train, but I still didn’t get it. An older friend enlightened me. I undoubtedly said, “I knew that.”)

Nor was I a party to the other guys’ lickerishly described activities in the last row at the movies (traditionally the last row, but not always, I was to learn) with the pliable girls who were part of those guys’ world but, alas, not mine. Where did they get them? What did they say to them?

It was no damn fun, knowing that Tom and Lyle — and even Eldon! — were somewhere in our local Moorish cinema palace in the dark paying scant attention to the feature while, as Groucho phrased it, “getting their hat blocked.” All while I sat alone in my room licking stamp hinges.

Has anyone done a study, I wonder, of how much abstinence bred of fright may have been caused in those days because of a singular convention faithfully observed in movies of the time: It was a fact of nature that a single roll in the hay was invariably accompanied by ruinous conception, regardless of the calendar. It was the sole reason that when Dorothy got tumbled in Antelope Park by a guy we all knew, I, the would-be wit of the 9th grade, yelled across the street at her, to tickle my grubby friends Tom and Phil, “Hey, Dorothy, what are you gonna name it?” To my ignorant surprise, “it” never appeared. (Nor until now did full awareness of the crappiness of my remark.)

We know that Herr Dr. S. Freud was nearly keelhauled on dry land in Vienna for his explosive revelation that children are profoundly sexual beings. Which brings us to what must, perhaps stretching a point, be called my own loss of unsullied innocence. Out of the blue, my unspotted past acquired a spot.

It happened in a movie theater. The setting: a Saturday matinee in the Grand Theatre, Grand Island, Neb. The cast and the props in our little unsavory playlet were myself and the old sod who slithered unnoticed into the seat beside me, his folded raincoat covering his lap. (This was not last summer; I was in second grade.)

Nothing about what happened meant sex to me at the time, partly because I didn’t know either the fact or the word. Being a quick lad, it took but moments to figure out approximately what was going on. I seemed to partially recollect some vaguely understood parental warning once that might apply here, having to do with “some men.” Mainly I was annoyed and embarrassed and overly aware that I had been made to unwillingly encounter another person’s — in John Cleese’s classic phrase — “naughty parts.”

And annoyed because it caused me to lose the thread of the plot of the Hopalong Cassidy movie I’d been enjoying in my unsuspecting solitude. There was no fear, for some reason, but simply the imminent humiliation and concern at the thought, “What happens when the lights go on?”

At probably the first frame of “THE END,” I shot up the aisle with my assertive neighbor in pursuit. I was too fast and agile for him. Looking back, I got my last view of the old goat, keeping track of me while he frantically bought candy. His mistake. I ducked into the Farmers’ Market, out the back door into the Christian Church’s lilac hedge and thence home.

I was certainly not stupid enough to tell my parents. My usual Saturday movie companion, Mary, was sick that day, hence my solo attendance, but I knew neither of us would get to go unchaperoned again if I related even a moderated version of my sordid tale.

Decades later, an old friend to whom I had told the story found himself sitting by chance right beside me in a New York theater. I hadn’t seen him. As the lights went down he leaned his head next to mine and gurgled, “Give me your hand, little boy,” producing an uncanny similarity to the tone of my long-ago, gender-bent lothario. I might have struck him if I weren’t laughing so hard.

Well, now. What can we learn from this, boys and girls?

I’m not aware of permanent damage from that far-off misadventure in the dark. But in later years, exposure to too much reading in certain schools of psychiatry almost convinced me that not only must I be scarred by it but that I probably caused it. I was surely guilty of having contributed to the happening according to the theory of one “head candler.” People who had such experiences were not innocent at all, but in fact complicit in the same way that women invite rape and that the Jews, in the popular anti-Semite’s phrase, “brought it on themselves.” Such silliness.

I have wondered how rare or how common my experience was. Do you, for example, have anything similar to report?

I see I have run off at the mouth, or the keyboard, again. In the interests of some sort of thematic balance, if nothing else, I probably ought to round out the whole business with at least the circumstances of the loss of what might be awkwardly called my “other virginity.” But I do have at least some regard for your sensibilities, dear reader, and no one should have to endure two squalid confessions; at least not at one sitting.


The host of “The Dick Cavett Show” — which aired on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and on public television from 1977 to 1982 — Dick Cavett is also the coauthor of two books, “Cavett” (1974) and “Eye on Cavett” (1983). He has appeared on Broadway in “Otherwise Engaged” “Into the Woods” and as narrator in “The Rocky Horror Show,” and has made guest appearances in movies and on TV shows including “Forrest Gump” and “The Simpsons.” Mr. Cavett lives in New York City and Montauk, N.Y.

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