Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My First Summer of Cinema - 1988

George Romero's death this week has left me feeling nostalgic about the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was also the first time I heard of Romero, saw a zombie film, and found out that movies were something people could take seriously and discuss as forms of art. Almost thirty years later, it's an experience that still resonates as a profound influence on my life and the person I eventually became.

I was spending the summer studying Communication Arts at the Governors Honors Program, a free camp that sent qualifying Georgia high school students for six weeks of academic opportunity at the Valdosta State campus. Despite the fact that it was 100 degrees in Valdosta and my dorm had no air conditioning, I was truly happy for the first time in my life. I was a lonely, bookish, skinny girl from a rural town in South Georgia. My conservative, religious parents controlled my life and frowned on my interest in becoming a writer or an artist while refusing to confront the causes of the deep depression that resulted from being trapped in such a situation. Getting away from them and out of town for the whole summer was a miracle in and of itself, but spending it with other nerdy, smart kids and having real friends for the first time while learning the most amazing stuff was almost too good to be true. I don't exaggerate when I say that Governor's Honors changed - and saved - my life.

In addition to days spent learning about literature from college professors (also my first time being around college professors!), we had a constant stream of bonus opportunities in the evenings and on weekends. One of my friends suggested that we attend a film series of social commentary shockers, and I went along, having no real concept of what that meant. I had not been allowed to see horror movies or R rated movies of any kind at home; we didn't have cable, and my parents exercised strict veto power over anything I tried to rent at the video store or see in the pitiful two screen theater downtown. During the film series we sat in desks in a dark, blessedly cool classroom, taking in these movies that I had never heard of before but would never forget seeing. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was up first, horrifying us with its gruesome zombies but really punching us in the gut at the end. Next came One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975); the discovery that frontal lobotomy was actually a thing that happened to people gave me nightmares for days. We finished up with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which was probably my favorite of the series if only because I was instantly charmed by Donald Sutherland, whom I had never seen before. Each picture shocked, terrified, and delighted me. It felt transgressive to be watching them, and I certainly didn't mention them to my parents.

The professor who showed the films introduced them and led discussions afterwards, something I often did as an English professor and still do today as a speaker at libraries, lifetime learning programs, and retirement communities. It made the movies so much more interesting to know something about them going in and have a lively conversation afterward. I don't remember if I contributed to the discussions back then; I was probably too ashamed of my own ignorance when many of the kids around me were obviously more schooled in the issues and the films. I remember a lot more about that series, though, than the Hitchcock screenings that ran in the student center, where we didn't have introductions or discussions. The academic, engaged approach made a big difference in the overall impact of the films.

Comm Arts kids were called "Commies" - we got shirts! Yes, I kept mine.

It's strange to look back thirty years later and realize that something so minor - just a few evenings of movie screenings, led by a knowledgeable person who thought kids should know something about film - would alter me in such an enduring way. I knew from the moment I arrived at Governor's Honors that it was the single best thing that had ever happened to me. It would go on changing my life in huge ways for the next several years, but I didn't suspect then that an introduction to George Romero's zombie classic would put me on a path to decades of passionate engagement with the art of cinema. Thanks, Mr. Romero, and thanks to that professor who wanted us to see those films. I'm trying to carry on the good work.