Station Identification II

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the ninth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

Station Identification II

Yes, I need the Conquistador; and yes, I mistrust and sometimes despise him. At eight and ten, while watching On Moonlight Bay, I knew that I needed him, and I loved him, too; I’m sure that I even loved my servitude. Now I question how well he fulfilled his duties as a foster parent. I can’t deny that he kept me entertained and even busy, but whether he’s worthy of the sort of unquestioning admiration due to, say, Nigger Jim is a different matter. Right now I’d say that it was Uncle Remus who came closer to describing—or executing—his peculiar talents.

Now there was a traumatic experience. Walt Disney’s Song of the South , according to my real parents, was the first film they ever took me to (probably during its initial run at the Princess, April 8–11, 1947, not long after I turned four and less than a year after Bo taught me how to read). A terrifying cartoon briar patch that might have been hatched in the brain of a Sade; the disquieting, chirpy-rasping voices of Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit, and the psychotic, molasses-slow, dumbkiller ground bass of Br’er Bear; and the trauma of Daddy’s leaving for Atlanta—made even more real by the fact that Bobby Driscoll’s name in the movie was Johnny. So what if the main plot took place on a plantation in the Old South? In all basic respects it was the same world as here and now. As Jacques Rivette once observed, Griffith’s Intolerance —which Stanley went to see with his mother Anna in Little Rock when he was in the first grade, taking the streetcar all the way from North Little Rock—has more to say about 1916 than about any of the historical periods it depicts. In the same way, Song of the South is about 1946, not long after a time when many Daddys were away.

Most traumatic was the departure of Uncle Remus, “fired” by Mommy for telling Johnny stories that taught him how to think and behave while Daddy was away, poor old misunderstood Uncle Remus, packing all his belongings in a bandana that he tied to the end of a pole, then boarding a wagon bound for Atlanta, and Johnny running across the field after him, screaming, “Come back, Uncle Remus, come ba-a-ack! ” and failing to notice the mad bull preparing to charge him. Then, waking from a coma, Mommy, Daddy, and the entire plantation staff—the whole world, really—crowded around his sickbed (a bit like the whole Duke Ellington band in silhouetted chiaroscuro, crowded around Fredi Washington’s deathbed at the end of Dudley Murphy’s 1929 Black and Tan ), as he continues to call hysterically for Uncle Remus (just a junkie, really, like Little Nell and Marcel Proust rolled into one) until Daddy finally fetches Uncle Remus, bringing him right to Johnny’s bedside, which immediately revives him. What could possibly be more traumatic than losing Uncle Remus?

Movies were my Uncle Remus, and they didn’t prevent my being gored by bulls—not even once. At best they could revive me afterward. Daddy and Bo were the bosses who owned the bull and hired Uncle Remus, and the Conquistador told Bo and Daddy what to do. My greatest ambition was to do what they did, to grow up and do what the Conquistador told me to do. Consequently, I kept on running across fields and getting gored by bulls, and good ole Uncle Remus just kept on reviving me.

So how else can I feel today but ambivalent? The Conquistador paid for Putney, Bard, and Stony Brook, most of Paris, both my novels in all their drafts, and even part of this book, too. After a while it gets to the point where you want to be gored—it’s so dramatic! exciting! And it paves the way for Uncle Remus to make his grand comeback, to soothe your wounds so nicely. Just like any ordinary night at the movies.

So let’s be clear about this; the villain-of-the-piece is neither the bull nor Uncle Remus (either of whom could be booked through central casting) but the Conquistador, who keeps them both operational, makes them play their assigned parts, calls all the shots, and directs all the shots at me. I have two choices: to do battle with him (shield myself from his shots and/or return a volley of my own) or to surrender. The same choices that anyone has at his or her favorite movie theater, at any given moment. Isn’t it just being alive? Both options are very tempting. Either one is fatal.

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