For many of us over the past year, watching films has become a necessarily solitary activity. Granted, there are worse ways to ride out a global pandemic than shacking up with the Criterion Channel, but what a lot of us buffs have been missing is more than just the crackle of a communal experience, it’s sharing a special movie with someone you love. I know that whenever I’m really taken with a film, one of the first things I find myself thinking about is a particular friend or family member I can’t wait to watch it with. (This probably explains why all of my jobs going back to my video store days seem to involve me pushing movies on people.) Seeing a film with somebody can be an incredibly intimate affair — you’re experiencing a wide range of emotions well outside the everyday — and it opens up avenues for conversation that might be closed off under other circumstances.
My father never really told me much about his time in Vietnam until we went to see Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July.” I’ll never forget how sitting together and talking after the lights came up that afternoon gave me a shockingly new perspective on what the world was like for him prior to me entering the picture. That our parents existed before we arrived is a source of endless mystery and fascination, a curiosity that only intensifies as one moves into middle age. Film critic Michael Koresky gets this better than most writers, and his wonderful new book “Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ‘80s Films That Defined Us” is about how the movies we share with our loved ones can help us better understand people we’ve known our entire lives. It’s an emotional autobiography viewed through a prism of old VHS tapes, with Koresky and his mom Leslie revisiting their favorite films from his childhood. The author is roughly the same age now as his mother was when they first watched these movies together, the intervening years prompting fresh perspectives and conversations you could never have with a kid.
As a child growing up in Chelmsford during the 1980s, Korseky bonded with his mom over what were once derisively dismissed as “women’s pictures” — mid-tier studio dramas made for female audiences as counterprogramming to the steroidal Stallone and Schwarzenegger shoot ‘em ups that came to epitomize the era. It’s hard to imagine today, but movies set in the real world about adult women used to do pretty good business back then, with stars like Jessica Lange, Debra Winger, Sigourney Weaver and Sissy Spacek regularly headlining hits. (In 1983, “Terms of Endearment” grossed nearly twice the box office of 007 and Dirty Harry.) Within critical circles, the decade is often dismissed as a lull between the 1970s New Hollywood renaissance and the indie revolution of the ‘90s, but Koresky’s book suggests the time might be ripe for a reevaluation, particularly with regard to those bountiful “women’s pictures.” Hell, these days we’re lucky if we get one Meryl Streep movie a year.
Each chapter is devoted to a particular film that the New York writer and his mom re-watch during one of his visits to the family home on Walnut Road in Chelmsford. The movies serve as springboards for artfully rendered reminiscences and reflections, along with astute critical considerations weaved in amid film production histories and Koresky family lore. As such, mother and son’s umpteenth viewing of the tart workplace comedy “9 to 5” also comes to encompass the sad sidelining of screenwriter Patricia Resnick, a brief history of Hollywood’s hostility toward female directors and Leslie’s days doing clerical work at Waltham Hospital while young Michael learns a certain word never to say when talking about women.
It’s a beguilingly personal way to write about movies, slyly structured enough to avoid self-indulgence while maintaining the flow of memory. The family stories are reflected in the films discussed, with his father’s devastating diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s framed by “Terms of Endearment” and its infamous third-act suckerpunch. (I can still recall my own parents coming home from that movie looking like they’d been mugged. My grandmother was dying and my folks had been hoping for a diversion in this supposedly side-splitting new comedy from the creator of “Taxi” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”) “Terms of Endearment” is a hilariously funny film until all of the sudden it isn’t anymore. As Leslie says in the book, “I never thought a movie could so definitely be one thing and then definitely another.” But seen again years later, with enough sadness in the rearview, the surprise structure no longer feels so radical, but rather a good deal more emotionally honest than conventional tear-jerkers with all their foreboding and foreshadowing. As Koresky writes, “Life sneaks up on you.”
"Films of Endearment" dives daringly deep into their complicated relationships with movies like “Mommie Dearest” and Robert Altman’s criminally underseen “Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” which starred Karen Black as perhaps the first trans character in a Hollywood movie who wasn’t a serial killer or the butt of everyone’s jokes. Koresky wrestles thoughtfully with his and Leslie's shared love of “The Color Purple” and knotty questions about representation, acknowledging a burgeoning queer sensibility in his appreciation of these pictures that his mother may have figured out even before he did. It’s honest writing, and awfully brave.
By the end of the book I had started to see Leslie as a heroine in one of those “women’s pictures” she and her son so enjoy watching together. (In my mind she’s played by Holly Hunter, but with a Boston accent.) It also made me really miss these long-gone Hollywood films from a vanished, pre-franchise era, described herein as “movies fronted by women, by adults, movies about the negotiations of life… about togetherness and love and identity that don’t have to signal their virtues as such but just reflect who we are and why that’s important as a matter of human course.”
Like most grand plans in 2020, this self-described “little project” for Michael and his mom was abruptly cut off by COVID quarantine concerns, the final chapter's conversation conducted over the phone after simultaneously watching “The Fabulous Baker Boys” in separate states. Koresky correctly notes that since most of “Terms of Endearment” is made up of long-distance calls between Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine, maybe this is indeed a fitting ending for their book. (Life sneaks up on you, after all.) Still, I hope Leslie and Michael might finally be able to watch a movie together again this Mother’s Day. I bet they’ll pick a good one.
Porter Square Books will be hosting a free virtual conversation with Michael Koresky on Thursday, May 24 at 7:30 pm.