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Monday, June 23, 2008

"My First Visit to the Movies", by Bill Geerhart

Bill Geerhart, Conelrad:

"Flashing Back on Fantastic Planet

I have many memories of going to the movies as a young child, but none stronger or stranger than sitting in the then modern Cerberus Theater in Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1973. Like many children of the seventies, I was obsessed with UFOs and space aliens. My exposure to the notion of malevolent beings from other worlds came mostly from television (episodic and old movies). Most of the aliens, of course, were ridiculous—the “vegetable people” from one particularly absurd Lost in Space re-run being exhibit ‘A.’ “Oh, the pain,” as Dr. Smith would say. But more intimidating and trippy space monsters were in my future.

One day my mother, who is Ivy League-educated and very highbrow (more highbrow than I could ever hope to be) decided to take me to a movie that was so bizarre it still induces occasional flashbacks in my pop culture cluttered brain. It was French director Rene Laloux’s animated space opera Fantastic Planet (aka La Planete Savage or The Savage Planet) and for a kid used to the terrible animation of Top Cat, Speed Racer and Josie and the Pussycats it was a visual revelation. In my mind, I can still see the giant blue creatures tormenting the subjugated human-like characters (hey, was this some sort of allegory?).
Note: Click image for enlargement.

I recall the film as being especially violent and especially French. Indeed, the language barrier (the subtitles were a definite problem for me) and the lack of an American hero to root for turned the movie into something that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. Although the movie’s running time seemed endless in 1973, I now know it was only 72 minutes long. But I sat there politely and let the unsettling images wash over me. On the ride home to the suburbs in our big clunking Buick, all I could think of were those enormous blue aliens with their bug eyes and their unholy dominion over the little people. It was a comfort to get back to the house and regress back to the simple awfulness of American cartoons.

One of the reasons I think Fantastic Planet had such an impact on me is because it was a unique experience – not unlike a visit from a UFO. No other kid in my acquaintance had a parent who would have thought of exposing their child to such an avant-garde film. And when I attempted to describe it to my classmates, they thought I was making it up. It was as if the whole thing never happened.

A little later in my young childhood, my mother took me to well-reviewed-but-still-R-rated movies like White Dawn, Between the Lines and Alien. Our gossipy, holier-than-thou neighbors were horrified, but if it weren’t for my mother exposing me to these kinds of movies in my youth, I doubt I would have started venturing out on my own to the great D.C. revival theaters like the Circle, the Biograph and the AFI to see classics like The Long Goodbye, Double Indemnity and the earlier, funnier Woody Allen movies. And without all this formative cinematic exposure, I doubt I’d be seeing films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Lives of Others and My Winnipeg today. No telling what the neighbor kids my age are watching now, but odds are they consider Juno pretty edgy. "
--Bill Geerhart--
Note: Note: Click label: "My First Visit to the Movies", to read more first-movie-stories.