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Every time I see Ed Begley Jr. in Los Angeles – which is more often than I ever expected – I’m tempted to tell him that my wife and I saw TRANSYLVANIA 6-5000 on our honeymoon. And we’re still married.

It’s true. Tracy and I were married twenty-nine years ago today, and on our honeymoon we saw two movies: the aforementioned TRANSYLVANIA 6-5000 and ROCKY 4, the one with the Russian. It was 1985, we were kids, cut us some slack.

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Tracy’s 1984 Student Discount Movie Card — she’s still my favorite movie date!

Buying a ticket, sitting in a theater, is still hands-down my favorite way to see a movie. Tracy Gunter Jackson is without a doubt my favorite person to see a movie with. Our first movie date was ROMANCING THE STONE – which just happened to be released on her 18th birthday in 1984. I paid for the tickets but we both used our Student Discount Movie Cards. The cards were a cross-promotion between local theaters and the Arkansas Democrat newspaper – before it became the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Tracy and I started dating the second semester of our senior year in high school. We’d been friends for a while before that. In those days you could find us most weekends with our friends either at the United Artists Breckenridge Village theater or at Mazzio’s Pizza a few blocks further east on Rodney Parham Road (in Little Rock). Shortly after we graduated in the summer of ’84 we just about wore those discount cards out going to see GHOSTBUSTERS several times.

We’ve been married 29 years – 10,585 days. In that time I estimate we’ve had roughly 600 movie dates. In the last month we’ve seen BIRDMAN, NIGHTCRAWLER, BIG HERO SIX and PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR. (Having a kid added another layer to our movie-going experience.) Each time we’ve seen a stinker we’ve tried to blame the other person for choosing it. Both of us still swear the other picked TRANSYLVANIA 6-5000. Each of us tries to take credit for FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF and PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. We’ve cried together in movie theaters and we’ve laughed together. We’ve gone to see movies when we were fighting and sometimes seeing a movie has helped us start a difficult conversation. We’ve gone to movies to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and also when the grief of losing a loved one would not abate by any other means. Movies have been the lingua franca of our generation and in some ways they’ve been that for our relationship as well.

In all the words that were printed last week on the passing of Mike Nichols, I read something that Mr. Nichols said about his marriage to Diane Sawyer: “I don’t know any secrets about what makes a marriage work, except if you can marry Diane, you’ll be in great shape.” I love that – and I’ll say for the record, the same is true for Tracy.

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Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd – GHOSTBUSTERS (Columbia PIctures)

Thirty years and roughly 3 weeks ago, I ate at Chili’s for the first time (the original location on Greenville Avenue in Dallas). I saw GHOSTBUSTERS for the first time the same day. One of those institutions has fared better than the other. I’ll give you a hint which one has not: the Greenville Avenue Chili’s closed in 2007 and was eventually demolished to make way for a 7-11. The chain is doing fine as far as I know but I can’t remember the last time I ate in one – and I used to frequent the place.

I came home from Dallas after having seen GHOSTBUSTERS on its opening weekend and promptly went to see it again at the Heights Theater on Kavanaugh. A high-end women’s clothing store, Feinstein’s, now occupies one side of that venerable old building and ZaZa Pizza Kitchen occupies the other.

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The former Heights Theater as it appears today. (Little Rock, AR 2014)

My point – and I do have one – is that restaurants can start out strong and eventually lose their way, theaters can close and retail stores move in, but movies are forever. A film is like a painting that moves and talks. It might be a major work or a minor one. It can be flawed or a masterpiece. But whatever it is when the paint dries, that’s what it will be as long as it exists.

If you watch a film today that you loved thirty years ago you might come to the conclusion that it’s not very good after all. In that scenario I’m relatively certain you’re the variable that changed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are things we enjoyed in our youth that don’t hold up very well under closer examination when we’re older. That possibility is what makes revisiting a movie you loved decades before — only to discover it still works for you — such a delight.

Thirty years on, GHOSTBUSTERS holds up for me. It is absolutely of its era but it’s timeless because it has its priorities straight: character, story and plot, in that order. It’s my favorite kind of comedy – a story with a big, ridiculous idea at the center that’s played straight by the cast and crew. Of course there’s silliness along the way but the humor comes from character and gags that make sense within the story. A lot of credit for that must go to screenwriters Dan Aykroyd and the late, great Harold Ramis. The movie is perfectly cast all around but nowhere does it shine like it does in the lead role. Aykroyd and Ramis wrote Peter Venkman to fit Bill Murray to a T. It is Murray’s movie-playground from start to finish.

GHOSTBUSTERS, like several standout comedies of that era, is a visual and aural feast. It takes such great advantage of the NYC locations that it deserves to figure prominently on any list of Best New York Movies. It’s beautifully shot like a “serious” film in 2:35. The color and composition in each frame were captured just right by the late Laszlo Kovacs under the watchful eye of Director Ivan Reitman who was at the top of his game. It’s not just great comedy – it’s great cinema.

The Elmer Bernstein score is another character in the film. Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters Theme (Who You Gonna Call?) became a smash hit song and video. (And the basis of a lawsuit that he lost to Huey Lewis and the News.) The Ghostbusters Soundtrack was in heavy rotation on my car’s cassette deck and in my Walkman during the summer and fall of ’84.

Peter Guber calls movies “emotional transportation”. That’s an apt description. Movies carry emotions to audiences willing to experience them. Movies also transport us to places and introduce us to people we might never experience otherwise. But movies also have the power to transport us to times in our own pasts. That’s their real magic.

I saw GHOSTBUSTERS at the Heights Theater at least three more times that summer. In those days if you loved a movie and wanted to see it again you had to go to the theater because it might be years (literally) before you could watch it at home. Over the last 25+ years since I’ve owned the movie on VHS, DVD and Blu ray. And now, as I write this, it’s streaming on my iPad. No matter what platform I see it on, watching it still transports me to June 1984.

Times change, tastes change, and of course technology changes. Movies are forever.

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NOTE: Now that another June is behind us I’m posting this and two other June memories — three events that happened 30, 33 and 35 years ago that have informed and impacted my life and work today.

Back from NYC

March 29, 2014 — Leave a comment

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I’ve been away for a few days. Here’s why…

When my son, Sam, was 8 years old I told him that I’d take him to any city of his choosing in the United States the year he turned 10.  I also promised to take him to any city in the world the year he turns 20. Without hesitation Sam chose New York for 10. (He’s leaning toward Paris for 20.)

Sam turned 10 this past August and while we had hoped to get him to NYC this past October, my Dad’s sudden illness and passing made that impossible. In fact, Dad died the very week we had originally planned to make the trip.

My Dad had a long held admiration of, and affection for New York City. He went there many times. But the first time, long before I was born, is the one that thrives in my imagination. He was in college in the late 1940’s. During one of his summer breaks he decided — being a lifelong Yankees fan — that he would hitchhike from his home in Arkansas to New York City and take in a game or two at Yankee Stadium. Dad saw a great deal of the United States in those days by walking out to the highway and raising a thumb toward the passing truckers, traveling businessmen and families on vacation who had room for one more. So, it was no big deal for him to take a couple of weeks to thumb his way to the East Coast and back. Except it was a big deal — he ended up being befriended by a Doctor and his family who invited him to stay in their guesthouse for a few weeks. He got to know the City and he saw the Bronx Bombers as much as he could while he was there. The experiences he must have had! If I had a Time Machine, one of the first places I’d visit is New York in the years just after World War II.

The first two times I went to NYC I was with my Dad. So it did my heart good for Sam to choose it for his ten-year-old trip. We’ve only been back for a couple of days but I don’t think our family will ever forget our week there. We stayed at a house owned by some good friends in Brooklyn. We did a lot of touristy stuff but we really enjoyed just living like Brooklynites for a few days — walking to the grocery store, local eateries, a block over to the subway station and three stops into Union Square. The picture at the top of this post was snapped as Sam (followed by Tracy) emerged from the Union Square station onto Manhattan concrete for the first time. He took to it like a duck to water.

Being in the City, seeing it again for the first time through Sam’s eyes I was struck by what a great movie town it is. I’m not just referring to movies set in New York. I’m talking about movies that are quintessential New York movies — where the City is as much a character as anyone else in the story. Over the next week or so, I plan to post two New-York-related-movie posts here. One is an essay about The Wolf of Wall Street — which I’ve been jotting notes for off and on since I saw the film in December. The other will be a general post on some of my favorite New York movies. I hope you’ll check back for those and join the conversation if you’re so inclined.

 

I had to take care of some personal business the last couple of weeks. I’m back.

Yesterday, we closed on the sale of my parents’ house of 40 years — my childhood home. We moved into Echo Valley when I was eight years old and I moved out the day of my wedding a little over twelve years later.

We’d previously lived in a parsonage. That’s a house owned by a church to provide a residence for its pastor. About eight years into my Dad’s pastorate of Forest Highlands Baptist Church in Little Rock, my parents – with the help of a developer, a banker, a contractor, a decorator, an architect and a building supplier in our congregation – decided to build a house. It was a good decision.

From the day we moved into the house on Echo Valley Drive in 1974 until the day my parents – both in failing health at the time – moved out in late 2013, it was filled with people making good memories. It’s where my three brothers and I, our wives and children and their children, gathered for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. Extended family and friends near and far were always welcome. Mom is a great cook and both my parents have the gift of hospitality. It is no exaggeration to say that over the 39 years Johnny and Carlene Jackson lived there, guests numbering into the thousands from across the United States and all over the world ate at their table and slept in their guest rooms.

I grew up in what most of my friends would have considered a strict household. There was no alcohol in our house. A deck of playing cards was frowned upon. (We did play dominoes like it was nobody’s business.) No one smoked. No one cussed. Mom and Dad tried to keep a close eye on the music that came into the house. Beatles, yes. Stones, no. Our household was strict but it was not oppressive. Laughter, music, and sports were always present and enjoyed. And we grew up going to movies and watching TV. (That made us out and out liberals to some of our more strict brethren.)

Dad was more than just a fan of classic movies. He was a devotee and authority on them. He grew up going to the local movie houses in South Arkansas. Dad introduced me to Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and many more. He was the first person I ever heard make the case that 1939 was the greatest year in movie history. He didn’t claim it was an original position but he did adhere to it. He was eleven in ‘39 and a number of the movies released that year were still on his must-watch-whenever-they’re-on list.

My Dad was a born entertainer. He grew up singing with his brothers — their mother at the piano. I learned the art of storytelling and the timing of a good joke from him. Growing up in the South, in a Baptist pastor’s home is a pretty good place to learn such things. Dad appreciated the inherent drama of a good story whether it came from the Bible, the newspaper, an article in Sports Illustrated, a classic novel or one of his favorite TV westerns or cop shows. He also knew how to share his own life experiences in a way that was engaging. Pay attention to structure, details and payoff – that’s how you tell a good story.

Johnny Jackson Sr. died this past October. He had 85 good years and about three really bad months health-wise. It became clear that with Mom’s ongoing health challenges she was not going to move back into the house. So, through the fall, holidays and first of this year we’ve been going through their things as carefully and respectfully as possible and getting the house ready to sell.

Dad was an inveterate list maker and record keeper. He kept incredibly detailed notes on his more than sixty years in the ministry. He kept notes and mementos of big and small moments in the lives of all his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He kept news clippings and his own hand written notes on the seasons of his teams: Arkansas Razorbacks, Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees.  So, I was delighted but not surprised to find a couple of movie lists in a file folder kept in the “nest” near his recliner.

In the folder he kept AFI’s original list of Top 100 movies that he tore from the pages of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. There was also a piece of Imagestationary filled with his scrawl, front and back, listing several categories of movies he liked. They were cross-referenced with how many were on AFI’s list and how many of them were released in 1939. I studied his list with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes.

This blog is a tributary that springs off the river of my Dad’s legacy. Talking about movies, making lists, offering help, passing along information, telling a good tale – it’s in my blood. Thanks for coming along and taking part.