Movie memories of my Dad
May 22, 1998
Web posted at: 11:07 p.m. EDT (0307 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- It's funny, sometimes, the kinds of things that eventually connect us to the people we love. My father, Lou Tatara, passed away on May 12 after a terrible battle with cancer. A child of the Depression (he was born in 1930), Dad's taste in movies was, to say the least, a little different than mine. When he discussed films with me, his references usually centered on the Dead End Kids or one of the 40 or 50 films that featured Pat O'Brien as a streetwise, supremely benevolent priest. He was not the type to applaud Jean-Luc Godard.
Raised partially in an orphanage in Cleveland, Dad liked stuff where Mickey Rooney (as the bad kid) would scuffle with anyone who got in his way and throw rocks at various storefronts for 90 minutes, then, out of nowhere, suddenly realize that he actually had a heart of gold. Then he'd hug the girl and the music would swell. I don't know if he was all that bad while he was a kid, but it always seemed to me as if Dad related in some secret way to this brand of dirty-faced delinquency.
After being cordially invited by the U.S. government to (extremely carefully, you can be sure) crawl on his belly and dismantle land mines in Korea for a few years, Dad came home to Ohio and married my mom, then sporting the name Laura Acela, in 1956. She liked to dance, and, when Dad managed to force her behind the wheel, was the only person who could get rubber in second gear in his '53 Mercury. My sister, Dianne, and brother, Jim, were already there (with Christine yet to come) when I made my open-air debut in February of 1963.
Love for movies nurtured in rural Alabama
Dad worked for most of his life in a chemical manufacturing plant, and the building of a new one compelled him to pick up and move us to the green pastures of Arab, Alabama when I was 4 years old. In the early going, he could never have imagined that that skinny kid playing with the Hot Wheels and chucking a variety of balls in the backyard with his big brother would soon develop into a card-carrying, stone-cold movie freak.
One of my first memories is of the whole family going to see "Dr. Dolittle" not long after we got there. An aptly named film (it sure as hell did little for us, and let's face it, snails don't get that large), I was nevertheless bitten by the movie bug in a big way. Since there was no theater in Arab, a great deal of my growing-up time would now be spent pestering Dad to drive me the 30 miles to Huntsville to see whatever movie I was then obsessing over. Even in the third or fourth grade, I read the reviews.
Dad apparently liked Robert Redford, seeing both "The Sting" and "The Great Waldo Pepper" with no coercing from me whatsoever
At first, most of the films we went to see (Jim came along, too, but wasn't quite as revved up about it as me) were deemed worthy of a look due to our shared passion for sports. Sure, there was the stray "Jeremiah Johnson" - Dad apparently liked Robert Redford, seeing both "The Sting" and "The Great Waldo Pepper" with no coercing from me whatsoever - but, for the most part, he wanted to watch Steve McQueen in "Le Mans" or Walter Matthau lackadaisically swatting fly balls to the bratty kids in "The Bad News Bears." That last one was a major step in our relationship, as I was permitted to laugh at the cussing without fear of parental retribution.
And then, of course, there was "Rocky." We saw it on April 13, 1977. I specifically remember the date because it had such a huge impact on Dad and me. Though it's just as obvious as it is likable when I see it now, the experience of watching that film at the impressionable age of 14 is something I'll never, ever forget. The "Gonna Fly Now" training sequence, the bloody side-of-beef workout, the howitzer-shot uppercuts that Rocky and Apollo Creed delivered to each other's battered faces in the final round; it was a heady experience for both of us, and, when we walked out of the theater, I literally told myself out loud that I wanted to be involved in the movies when I grew up.
I didn't know what the capacity would be, or even how to proceed with the task of getting there, but I made sure that Dad didn't hear me making my pledge. He probably would've thought I was nuts (displaced Polish/Catholic kids growing up in Dixieland didn't become screenwriters ... or film critics, for that matter), but it was his cooperation, his willingness to periodically indulge my movie craving, that enabled me to start on that long, difficult journey into the film industry.
War movies were attention-getters
War movies on TV would often grab Dad's attention, for obvious reasons, but the one he would watch repeatedly, and at the drop of a hat, was a pretty decent POW escape yarn called "Von Ryan's Express." It stars Frank Sinatra as a cocky American colonel who leads the usual rag-tag collection of soldiers on a daring bid for freedom. They do this by stealing a German freight train, with Sinatra behaving all the while exactly like Sinatra, except with a bomber jacket instead of a tux and fancy cufflinks. It's only fitting that Ol' Blue Eyes finally poured back one more for the road just a few days after Dad left us. I sat and watched the movie more than a couple of times with Dad, and now the death of these two people will be forever linked in my memory.
So don't go telling me that they're "just movies." It's called popular culture because it touches large numbers of us at once, seducing us until it's infiltrated our hearts and imaginations ... that is, when the people responsible for creating it can be bothered to touch something besides our pocketbooks and our billfolds. The next time "Von Ryan's Express" is on TV, I'll watch Sinatra running after that train, reaching desperately for survival, for escape, but he'll take one in the back from a Nazi, just like he always does, and he'll go down.
My dad also made a run for it, but he, too, has escaped despite losing the battle. He was my father, and I loved him, and now I'll have to carry these memories on my own. Thank you for driving me to the movies, Dad.