December 1, 1999

In Les Blank's Own Words...

From <em>Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers</em>

Pinocchio started it all for me, in 1940, when I was four years old. It happened at the Tampa Theater, one of the grand old Depression-era movie palaces thankfully preserved still today, with all of its ornate and excessive decor, in Tampa, Florida. (It was built by the same wizard who created the fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta and another great one, also still functioning, in Miami.) It has twinkling stars in the ceiling and clouds that float by. Plus lots of bare-breasted women with long flowing tresses seemingly everywhere I looked. One held the water fountain out for me to drink from. Others waved huge candelabra of light and were strategically situated throughout the wondrous and mysterious, darkened stucco caverns. For a breast-fed kid of four it was most stimulating. There was no question of my willingness to suspend disbelief. And suspend it I did. I was instantly sucked into the cartoon from the first frame and I’m not sure I’ve ever completely returned.

Television, in those days, was non-existent, which gave the large screen experience even more of a powerful impact. For years I totally loved everything I saw at the movies. After seeing Tarzan films, I would come home and immediately climb the nearest tree and while swinging from the branches, screaming at the top of my lungs, I would soon release all the pent-up energy that had built up since the previous weekend’s adventures within the marvelous silver screen. Then came the cowboy movies and the war movies and the Saturday matinees. My older brother found it endlessly amusing that I would lock myself in my room and shout out “SHAZAM’ over and over with increasing vigor, hoping to suddenly become that all-powerful Superman knockoff, Captain Marvel. It never worked. Nor did “OPEN SESAME!”

As I grew out of these kinds of films and began to stop jeering during love scenes and actually start forming strong attachments to Jane Russell, Betty Grable and even Doris Day, I began to become aware of another kind of film. The kind being made in Europe by De Sica; The Bicycle Thief, Miracle In Milan and Fellini La Strada, Nights of Cabiria) and Buñuel (Los Olvidados). During a particularly turbulent period in my early 20s when I was a grad school dropout, unrecognized writer, divorced father and unable to find a job, I discovered Ingmar Bergman. The Seventh Seal suddenly showed me that as morbid and depressed as I had become, I could be a whole lot worse off. It was as though open soul surgery had been performed and the operation was a success. I left the theater absolutely elated and decided to somehow get myself into film.

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