Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your pop culture dealmaker, the thing that someone can profess to enjoy and gain your total respect, no matter what?”

These days, with a baby in the house, my moviegoing habits have become much less adventurous, but in my prime, I saw just about everything. Back in New York, I averaged a couple of movies a week, including first runs, indie films, and revivals at the Film Forum or other independent theaters. Some of my favorite memories revolve around such special programs: I ducked out of work on at least one occasion to catch a showing at the retrospective at the Walter Reade of the works of Michael Powell—which remains the high point of my moviegoing life—and I’d sometimes sit through three or four screenings a day, knowing I might never get another chance to see these movies on the big screen, or at all. Usually, attendance was sparse, especially for deep cuts like Oh, Rosalinda! and Ill Met by Moonlight, and more than once, I’d look around at the other audience members and quietly ask myself, “Who are these people?” Film lovers, sure, but of a particularly curious type, often on the older side, with an obsessive interest in movies that weren’t even fashionably nerdy. (I still remember some of the conversations I overheard in the ticket line: “Well, most people assume that The Edge of the World was a quota quickie, but in fact…”)

And I’d like to think that if I ever stopped to have a conversation with one of my fellow attendees, we’d have become friends. To my regret, I never put this to the test, and it’s likely that the outcome might have been a little disappointing—a momentary meeting of minds between a couple of weirdos. Still, the promise of finding someone with whom you can talk about your secret pop cultural passions is enticing. Online, of course, it’s possible to find active fan forums about just about anything, but that doesn’t compare to a mutual discovery made in the course of ordinary small talk, or the sense of embarking on a pilgrimage with other kindred souls. Sometimes, such connections lead to even more than you’d expect. A long time ago, I ended up seeing The Muppets Take Manhattan at a midnight screening at the Landmark Sunshine on East Houston Street, with a girl I’d just started to get to know well, and at drinks before the movie, we found ourselves talking at length about the devastating impact of the events of Return of the Jedi on the ecology of the forest moon of Endor. Two years later, I married her. And while I can’t say that conversation was the only reason, it certainly didn’t hurt.

The Muppets Take Manhattan

Really, though, when we’re drawn to others because of a common cultural interest, it’s often more out of a sense of shared biography, rooted in childhood or adolescence. For most of us, the odd corners of movies, music, or literature we’ve colonized arise from an accident of our life stories: maybe we watched Twin Peaks with our parents, or stumbled across Little, Big in the local library, or acquired a copy of The Queen is Dead at just the right time. Finding someone who cares about the same things implies a larger network of shared experience, a belated encounter with an existence that ran parallel to yours. When we look back at our friends from high school, or even college, we sometimes find that we don’t have much in common with them aside from the fact that we lived through the same four years of memories—which can be meaningful in itself. A quirk of timing provides us with a shared language, a vocabulary of references, and we feel a kinship that might not exist if we’d met later on. Pop culture provides a second, invisible alma mater, a school of life that we were all attending together without ever knowing it, and that sense of connection is all the stronger the further back in memory it goes.

But sometimes the truest connections come from neither the obscure nor the intensely personal, but from a dive into more familiar waters. If you confess that you have an irrational love of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for instance, it’s very likely that we’re going to be friends. This has nothing to do with sentimentality: I wasn’t a Star Trek fan growing up, and I didn’t see Khan until I was in my early twenties. For whatever reason, though, it quickly came to stand for much of what I love about the movies, as well as the act of storytelling itself, in part because of the circumstances under which it was made. But even if you don’t have any interest in such matters, and simply find yourself caught up by what Pauline Kael called the film’s “large, sappy, satisfying emotions,” it’s a good sign. I’m pretty sure that Wrath of Khan came up during the date with my future wife I mentioned above, and although she later confessed to me that she hadn’t seen it after all—she had confused it in her mind with her memories of the audio storybook—I forgave her. The following year, we found ourself back at Landmark Sunshine, at yet another midnight showing, bursting into applause with a roomful of strangers at “Khaaaan!” And it was surely the best of times.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2014 at 9:56 am

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