It was the spring of 1984, and I was a bored twenty-year-old English major headed to Brooklyn for my dreaded first-period journalism class; I was running late as usual. Dressed in spray-starched black jeans, a matching long-sleeve shirt, and denim jacket, I walked the six blocks down Broadway and, minutes later, boarded the 1 train at 145th Street. Carrying an army-green shoulder bag heavy with textbooks, pulp paperbacks, notebooks, pens, and a few magazines, I quickly sat down, glanced at the black graffiti scrawl on the wall, and sighed. On a good day—one without subway delays from congestion or other escapades—Long Island University was an hour away. Taking off my glasses, I rubbed my tired eyes and thought about my first-period teacher, Professor Bird, whose boring journalism course was driving me crazy. Too much Hunter Thompson and Lester Bangs had corrupted me, and I felt as though the straight-laced journalism gospel Bird was preaching had little to do with the writing gods I believed in.
Even after gulping three big cups of Café Bustelo before leaving my grandmother’s Harlem apartment, listening to Bird’s lectures on the fundamentals of craft made me sleepy. In retrospect, I know Professor Bird—with his AP Style Manual and quoting from Strunk and White—was right, but, as a bespectacled literary romantic, I wanted more from writing than a list of rules. Perhaps a journalism class was the last place I should’ve been looking for the children of the revolution—those fellow students who viewed themselves as upstarts overflowing with passion, angst, style, and arty ambition.
I craved the taste of bohemia, with wild arguments about aesthetics and theories thrown about like confetti, and longed to be part of a “set the world on fire” literary art movement that rivaled the Lost Generation or the Beats; the plebes within earshot of Bird simply wanted to graduate. It didn’t help my disposition that I’d already published professionally, which, at least in my mind, made me better than the rest of the class. While other students eagerly asked questions in their serious Woodward-and-Bernstein style, I was usually slouched in my seat daydreaming about writing “something real” in my imaginary garrett surrounded by well-read books and modern art.
Heading downtown, I jotted in my notebook as the rickety subway screeched into the 96th Street station, quickly jumping off the train with every intention of waiting for the connecting express. The air in the station smelled as funky as the bum sleeping on the wooden bench. I waited on that smelly platform for the downtown 2 train when I got the sudden urge to ditch school for the day and treat my sullen self to a big-city adventure. Running up the stairs, I pushed through the wooden turnstile and headed towards a second staircase leading outside. It wasn’t until exiting the station that I decided to spend the day at a revival-house movie theater a block away called the Thalia.
Although I had never been there before, I’d passed it many times the two decades I’d lived uptown. The theater’s exterior marquee prominently featured Woody Allen in Annie Hall, and my movie-loving mother told me she’d seen a Mr. Magoo marathon there before I was born.
While Mom loved going to the movies, for her, they were merely entertaining excursions that held little interest beyond what was offered on screen. Besides the films’ stars themselves, she didn’t care who directed, scored, or produced the film, just as long as the actors were good, the story moved swiftly, and she could escape from the real world for two hours.
I stood on the corner of 95th Street and stared at the theater. A shiver went up my arm, and I felt as though the gleaming silver letters spelling out its name possessed a power that was pulling me towards it, as though the mystical aura of a good witch was beckoning me to enter the enchanted forest. Strolling down the hill, I looked up at the marquee that read Touch of Evil , with director Orson Welles’s name over the title. Although I’d seen Citizen Kane , the most I knew about Welles was seeing him in Paul Masson wine commercials . I bought a ticket for $1.50 and picked up the program in front of the window; the Thalia usually changed films daily, and their program was a detailed guide to their upcoming lineup.
Standing in the dimly lit lobby, I nervously crossed the threshold and, as had become a habit since I started going to the movies by myself when I was a kid, walked to the middle row and sat in the center. There were only a few people in the theater, and everyone was by themselves; as I’d later learned, movie buffs, like writers, have no problem with solitude. Anxiously waiting for the movie to start, I questioned why I was sitting there in the first place. I wasn’t one to cut school. I’d only done it once in high school, but, floating between post-adolescence protection and real-world decisions, I needed a few hours in the darkness to not think about my own dilemmas, or that damn class. As the house lights dimmed, I slid down into the seat. Having not read the film’s description in the program, I didn’t know what to expect, but while watching Touch of Evil ’s opening scene, I knew I’d made the right choice.
I slowly became absorbed into the cinematic netherworld of the film as the camera soared over rooftops, followed behind a bad man placing a time bomb in a car in Mexico, introducing the audience to characters Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston wearing brown makeup to look Mexican), a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government, his wife Susie (Janet Leigh), and the crooked cop Captain Hank Quinlan, who has developed a habit of planting evidence on people he believes to be guilty, played by Orson Welles.
Three minutes into the film, the time bomb finally went boom, setting into motion a shadowy tale that was one part murder mystery and one part psychological drama documenting Quinlan’s descent into a hell of his own making. I’d never been so scared by a non-horror movie; in more ways than one, it was the darkest movie I’d ever seen, a nightmare on film where vice, violence, and vengeance were related, where the sense of doom was as thick as the humidity hovering over the town.
After the movie, I sat stunned for a few seconds and opened the program to read about the movie’s details, a paragraph that contained the first mention of “film noir” I ever saw. Scouring it was like reading the afterword to a great novel or the description plaque next to the Mona Lisa. How blessed I was that Touch of Evil was my introduction to the genre of damaged landscapes, where desperate people in desperate situations slinked through the shadows, and a sense of doom shrouded over their world like a veil. With the exception of Kafka, I’d yet to discover anything that had moved me so completely towards the absurd darkness of the world, and I wanted more. Looking around the theater as we waited for the second feature to begin, I realized that I had no interest in going to school anymore. Between the changing of the last reel, I decided I was going to drop out.
However, to stay at my grandmother’s Harlem apartment without paying rent or bills, my only responsibility was going to school, getting a degree, and making her proud. Reneging on our arrangement only made me feel guiltier, which made it impossible for me to stay home during the day just in case Grandma returned early from her factory job in New Jersey—at least until I had the guts to admit to her (and myself) that I was a college dropout. While I might’ve felt that “school was getting in way of me learning,” I was afraid to utter those words aloud; but, returning to the Thalia the following day and many days afterwards, the masterful movies I watched there, including many foreign films, became my teachers. In my own writings, I wanted to “see” the story. While I had no desire to write screenplays, I wanted to write with the vividness that was projected on the screen.
The year before I dropped out, I’d discovered the films of Fran c ois Truffaut, a cinematic rule-breaker whose seminal debut The 400 Blows blew me away. As gritty as it was arty, the film captured badass kid protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), whose mischievous adventures were based on the director’s own wayward life trying to survive in fifties Paris. What struck me was how Truffaut took this Every Kid and turned him into a hero and survivor.
Having grown up on domestic Disney films in which kids turned into parents (Freaky Friday) or Dad turned into the family pet ( The Shaggy Dog ), Truffaut’s film was, for me, jarring in its lack of saccharine sentimentality as he documented Antoine trying to navigate through his damaged world. Living in Harlem, I’d seen more kids like Antoine Doinel than Disney characters, but I never thought their lives would make good stories; after watching The 400 Blows , I knew better. Years later, I reflected on this film and how Truffaut brilliantly blended life and art, trying from his own tales and others to create this complex character.
Later, reading about Truffaut’s own life, I was amazed that he’d started out as a journalist and film critic for a magazine called Cahiers du Cinema , was an adoring fan of Alfred Hitchcock—the first director I knew by name when The Birds caused me many sleepless nights—and, perhaps most importantly, was so impassioned about cinema that he and his rebellious posse—Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol—started the French New Wave movement, whose style can still be seen in the work of Wong Kar-wai and Quentin Tarantino. Not only were these men passionate storytellers in their own ways, such as Godard pushing narrative limitations; for them, making movies was about more than money: They fought for it, marched for it and, at least with Godard, seemed ready to die for it.
“Cinema opened my eyes to life,” Godard once said. For me, cinema opened my eyes to how life could be portrayed and the possibilities of art, be it a film, a painting, or a two-thousand-word profile on the musician Tricky. Sometimes when I’m working on a music essay, I imagine that I’m creating a sweeping biopic or gritty musical. Movies made an impact on me in incalculable ways as a young writer—the nonlinear storytelling of Annie Hall and The Killing , the brooding characterizations in Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver , the chance that anything could happen at any time to anyone in a Hitchcock film, the edgy humor and razzmatazz of Bob Fosse, and on and on until I fade to black.
Throughout my childhood, Mom often took me to see what modern-day parents would call “age-inappropriate movies,” including Goodbye, Columbus , The Landlord , The French Connection , The Owl and the Pussycat, and countless others. When I was thirty, I finally asked why she took me to see so many grown-up films. “I guess I couldn’t find a babysitter,” she said.
Most writers begin their textual journey copying the style of other writers, but mine began with subconsciously ripping off elements of the now-forgotten 1971 gangster picture The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight , starring a young Jerry Orbach and Robert De Niro. After sitting through the matinee inside the Loews Theater on 83rd Street, Mom and I walked from Broadway to Columbus Avenue to visit my writer godfather Hans Wolfgang Schwerin, who lived in Excelsior Hotel on 81st Street and would be, until his death in 1987, my coach, mentor, and supporter. He also bought me my first typewriter, a blue-green Olivetti Lettera.
Uncle Hans was a German immigrant novelist and playwright who once published a poem in the Thomas Mann literary journal Mass und Wert , moved to the Upper West Side in 1946, and had known my mother for years. Extremely nearsighted, Uncle Hans wore thick glasses and was usually dressed in stylish suits. When Hitler took control of Germany, Hans and his family fled to America. When I was a boy, Uncle Hans was my best friend, although he was already in his late fifties. Though he didn’t have any children of his own, Uncle Hans always drew me silly pictures on postcards when he travelled and, when we visited, made up various games that kept me occupied while he and Mom talked.
Out of the blue, that afternoon, he suggested I dictate a story.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means, you tell me a story and I’ll type it up.”
Next to my mom on the plush couch—opposite a floor-to-ceiling bookcase overflowing with first-edition volumes and New Directions/Grove Press paperbacks—I stood up and followed Uncle Hans to his bedroom office. Even though I’d read many children’s stories, including my favorite book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , I didn’t regurgitate the plots from those books, and instead went for the jugular with a New York City crime story.
For the next half hour, Uncle Hans sat hunched over his ink-stained manual typewriter as he deciphered my enthusiastic eight-year-old storytelling. Standing beside the cluttered desk as classical music streamed from a battered black radio across the room, I freestyled a tale about goofy Mafia members living in Brooklyn, including crazy criminals, a wild lion, and an exploding car.
Uncle Hans managed to get three typed pages out of my reinterpretation of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. After collating the manuscript, he stapled the pages and handed them to me. “Here is your literary debut,” he said, smiling as though he was already aware of the effect his efforts would have on me. Although there were only a few sheets, they felt heavy in my small hand. Prior to that day, I’d never thought about anything I’d experienced—like watching movies —as something a real person actually created, that it all ultimately began with the written word. Although I can’t recall the title of my debut, I do know it wouldn’t be the last time I turned to films and filmmakers for inspiration; forty years later, living in the age of YouTube, Netflix and other streaming services, whenever I find myself stuck while writing, watching a good movie is usually enough to get me rejuvenated.
That afternoon at Uncle Hans’s apartment, I crawled back onto the couch and stared at the black letters on the white pages. Feeling a sense of pride mixed with puzzlement from my picture-show inspired words, I’m not sure I fully understood what had happened and how much remembering that movie would change my life. Handing the story to my mom, she folded them neatly and stuck the pages into her purse.