The First Film You Remember Watching

30-Day Movie Challenge, Day 1: The First Film You Remember Watching

My earliest movie-related memory — hell, one of my earliest memories period — is of going with my mom and my great-grandmother to an old-fashioned, single-screen neighborhood movie house across the street from where Grandma lived to see The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.

If that title sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of the weekly television series that ran on NBC for two seasons from 1977-78. The series was spun off from the feature film of the same name, which believe it or not was one of the highest grossing films of 1974, despite being G-rated and starring a virtual unknown named Dan Haggerty, whose biggest role prior to that was a bit-part in Easy Rider. Grizzly Adams was an independent film made on a shoestring budget by a Utah-based production company, filmed on location around my home state and loosely based on a real 19th-century mountain man. I couldn’t find much information about the film online, so I can only guess its success was a quirk of its timing. Its story of a man wrongly accused of murder escaping into the wilderness and living in harmony with nature struck a chord in those days of anti-authoritarianism, back-to-the-land lifestyle experiments, and the nascent environmental movement. A film with a similar premise, Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson, had come out only two years prior, and the “Crying Indian” PSA and the related Keep America Beautiful campaign two years before that.

Now, I was all of five years old when Grizzly Adams was released, so I’m sure my memories of the film itself are conflated with the TV series that followed. But I do have a vivid impression of the experience of seeing it. I recall that the movie theater — the Murray, named after the city it was located in — was just a short walk from Grandma’s tidy little house with the Chinese red kitchen. This is the only time I remember going to the movies with her, and in my mind, I sat between her and my mom, feeling warm and safe and loved as I munched my popcorn.

I also recall having a bit of an obsession with the Grizzly Adams story for a while, which seems incongruous given my lifetime affection for science fiction. (I know I was already watching Star Trek by ’74, and the following year, Space: 1999 as well.) But something about Grizzly clicked with me… possibly the fact that I recognized the landscapes where it and the spinoff series were filmed. I remember having this weird notion that Grizzly and Little House on the Prairie — which I also watched during my wholesome Utah childhood —  were both taking place right now, er, that is, then, in the 1970s, contemporaneously with the shows’ airing. I knew they were only TV shows and that actors only pretended to do the things they did, but I also believed there were real analogs of the characters living in the mountains that I could see from my living-room window. That if I were to go up there somehow, I would run into Adams and his companion Ben the bear, and the town of Walnut Grove with all its inhabitants just the way they appeared on my screen every week. It probably didn’t help my confusion when a real-life mountain man came riding up the street in front of my house one summer, bound for Idaho where he intended to live off the grid, in communion with nature and by his own terms. He was on horseback with a pack horse following behind, and he was wearing a Bowie knife as long as my young arm on one hip and an honest-to-god six-gun on the other, just like those guys on TV… but that’s a story for another time.

As far as I can determine, the Life and Times of Grizzly Adams feature film has never been released on any home video format — the TV series is available on DVD — and I haven’t seen it, probably, since that day with Mom and Grandma. I know there’s a copy of it on YouTube, but I’m half afraid to look at it. Better perhaps that it remain a sweet memory unsullied by low-budget reality.

My great-grandmother died decades ago, in the late ’80s, I think, and her little house, along with its entire neighborhood, was demolished and replaced by an apartment complex where a friend of mine lived for a time in the ’90s. Weirdly enough, the Murray Theater is still standing, although no movies have been shown there in almost as long as Grandma has been gone…

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30-Day Film Challenge

We’re 10 days into the Biden-Harris administration and, for now at least, civilization seems to be holding itself together, so I feel like it’s okay to begin doing some frivolous, nonpolitical blogging again. I don’t know about you, but I could use the break.

As I mentioned at the end of the last year’s 30-Day Song Challenge, I’ve also come across a 30-Day Movie Challenge. How can I resist doing that one, especially considering how well the Song Challenge worked at prompting me to post something on a fairly regular basis?

Now, I’ve done a lot of “list of favorites” type entries over the years, and it seems like the same films just keep coming up over and over in those. So to try and make this a bit more interesting (and a lot less repetitive), I’ve decided to impose one big restriction on myself: no films from the Star Wars franchise. And I’ll also strive to avoid using any of the movies that I blather about all the time, although that may be a bit trickier to pull off. We’ll see what I can come up with.

Here’s the list of categories:

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This Land of Hope and Dreams

It’s been slightly over 96 hours since Joe Biden took the oath of office and became the 46th president of the United States.

Four days.

And while it may be unrealistic and even unfair to expect much of a change in only four days… the world today feels very different to me than it did last Sunday. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say… I feel very different. I have literally felt my body unclenching little by little over these past four day. Relaxing. It’s been rather like what I experienced after I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes; as the medications took effect and I returned to something resembling how a normal human body is supposed to function, I was surprised by how different I suddenly felt. You know how people describe getting angry as “seeing red?” Well, before my blood pressure was regulated, before I knew it needed to be regulated, I literally did that. It was as if a red lens dropped over my eyes whenever I got irritated about something. And I never questioned it because I thought it was just something that happened to everyone. But now it doesn’t happen anymore and I understand that it was a warning sign. In short, I never realized how bad I used to feel all the time until I started to feel well. And the same type of thing is happening now that Trump is gone.

I’ve spent the last four years feeling angry, constantly angry, every single day. Every day, there was a new outrage, a fresh source of irritation and loathing, as the wanna-be mafia don in the Oval Office and his team of deplorables — yes, I said it; Hillary was right on with that description when it comes to the likes of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Rudy Giuliani and all the other scumbags that comprised Trump’s inner circle — kicked the supports out from under everything that progressives value and have fought so hard to build over the last 90 years. Those feelings ramped up in the two months following the election as the hardheaded narcissist refused to concede and his sycophants in Congress and on the TV talking-head shows spread the Big Lie that the election was somehow rigged. (If that was true, if the Democrats had really pulled off some kind of massive conspiracy to swing the election in their favor, does it make any sense at all that we wouldn’t have arranged for an overwhelming majority in the Senate as well? Come on… ). And then on January 6, as the barbarians raged through the halls of the Capitol building — our Capitol, We the People’s Capitol — with their Confederate treason flags and their ridiculous cosplay outfits, my anger became white-hot fury, and then as inauguration day approached, I had a sick certainty that something was going to happen…

And then it didn’t. No assassination attempt, no car bomb, no riots. Biden and Harris just took their oaths and before the fireworks flew that evening were already busy at work trying to undo the damage the previous administration has wrought. The whole tone of business changed almost instantly. We have press conferences again and a press secretary who wants to work with the media instead of antagonizing them. We have scientists back in charge of the pandemic. Trump toadies within the civil service are being invited to leave. It’s all so… I hate to use the word “normal,” because I hesitate to believe anything will ever be normal again, but the news has become so… quiet. And competent. It feels like the grown-ups are back after an unruly school class has trashed their room.

Now, I’m not a fool. It has been, after all, only four days. Biden has an ambitious agenda and is confronted with a hell of a lot of fires to put out, and logic and cold experience dictates that he’s not going to be able to do all of it, or even most of it. The Republicans are already pushing their usual disingenuous bullshit around the concept of “unity” (i.e., that “unity” means “do it all our way or we’ll scream that you’re not serious about healing the nation”); Mitch McConnell remains intransigent about blocking the Democratic agenda any way he can (“promise not to nuke the filibuster or I’ll filibuster!”); the MAGA nation is still out there screaming about election fraud and socialism; and the media is already doing their part to undermine a Democratic president by publishing stupid shit like that article about Biden’s Rolex (am I supposed to feel a burst of class-based outrage that he has a nice watch and a classic Corvette when the previous occupant of the White House craps in a gold-plated toilet?). So while rolling back the most egregious of Trump’s activities with executive orders of our own feels mighty damn satisfying, any genuine, long-lasting progress is going to be an uphill battle to achieve. I know all of this. And I know that Trump himself is still out there, too, lurking somewhere in the shadows, along with all of his shallow-gene’d, cokehead, would-be dynastic offspring, waiting for their chance to lurch back into the light and stir the shit up again, if not incite another coup attempt.

But you know… we’ve had four glorious days of not having to hear about him or hear him, of not having to see his ugly little sphincter-mouth all over my social media newsfeeds, and that has really been enough for now. His absence has been blissful luxury.

(Incidentally, I know this entry is considerably less… measured… than my usual political posts. I usually try hard to not deliberately provoke my conservative friends. But I can’t hold it back anymore. The last four years have tested me, and tested this country, almost to the very limits of our endurance. And I’m tired of playing nice just to avoid an argument. So, while I don’t wish to hurt, anger, or fight with anyone who might be reading this, I’m also not going to muzzle myself. Not anymore, not on my blog. You don’t like the tone? Take it up with Donald Fucking Trump, the worst president this nation has ever endured, may he rot down there at his ticky-tacky Florida compound.)

In closing, I want to share Bruce Springsteen’s performance from the Celebrating America special that aired on various networks and platforms on inauguration night. As with so many Springsteen songs, it aches with a world-weary melancholy, but there’s a hard, warm little kernel of optimism at the center of it. That’s where I am right now, where I have been since the morning of January 20. It’s not going to be easy for Joe Biden… but I do believe he’s going to move heaven and earth to try to make things better. And after the last four years of selfish exploitation and creeping authoritarianism, he’s going to look like goddamn hero for it.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder’s rolling down the tracks
You don’t know where you’re goin’ now
But you know you won’t be back
Darlin’ if you’re weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We’ll take what we can carry
And we’ll leave the rest
Big wheels rolling through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

 

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A Moment’s Respite

Joseph R. Biden is now the president of the United States.

I feel like an anvil has been lifted from my head.

And yet… you know what I keep thinking about today? There’s this one particular moment in the old Empire Strikes Back radio drama made for NPR back in the ’80s… what’s that? You don’t know about that? Well, if you’re a Star Wars fan who hasn’t heard the radio dramas, you really owe it to yourself to seek them out. You wouldn’t think that movies with such a strong visual identity and relatively little dialogue could be successfully adapted to a strictly audio format, but these work extremely well, thanks to strong scripting by the late Brian Daley (who wrote the early tie-in novels about Han Solo and Chewie), original music and sound effects from the films, and some very talented voice actors, including Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, and Billy Dee Williams. The radio dramas actually deepen the familiar stories in a number of interesting ways; I personally prefer the radio version of how Leia came into possession of the Death Star plans to what we see in Rogue One.

Anyhow, in the Empire adaptation, the Battle of Hoth takes up an entire half-hour episode, ending on a terrific cliffhanger as the Rebel base falls and our heroes are forced to run for their lives. The action builds and builds, with Leia in the command center barking orders, artillery fire rattling the base, the music swelling, and then a distorted voice comes over the comm system: “Imperial troops have entered the base! Imperial troops — ” There’s the sound of a blaster shot and a burst of static. Han Solo tells the princess this is it, they’re out of time. Leia gives the evacuation order, and there’s even more commotion, a klaxon ringing, controllers shouting, the music rising…. and then a sudden moment of silence. The only sound effect is of dust falling. It’s like the story is pausing to catch its breath… and then the music returns, insistent, more frantic than ever… the sound effects come back with a roar of blasterfire and explosions as Vader’s theme pounds out… and then the narrator gives us the closing blurb about the Rebels struggling to keep the light of freedom from going out forever… cue the closing credits for that week.

Well, friends, today feels to me very much like that moment of silence during the radio version of the Battle of Hoth. The story has paused, the dust is settling, and we’re all letting out a collective exhale. But the pandemic is still raging; the QAnon cultists and white supremacists and anti-government militias are still out there, and I don’t expect they’re going to just melt back into the shadows; the Supreme Court is now solidly conservative, and Mitch McConnell is no doubt already scheming a way to gum up Biden’s agenda; and there is so, so, so much damage to repair. And I expect the battle against all of that to fade back in as soon as tomorrow morning.

But that’s tomorrow. For now, let’s just… exhale. And enjoy the quiet sound of dust settling…

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24 Hours

Tomorrow at 12 noon EST (10 AM where I am), the Trump presidency will be formally over. (Actually, I think you can argue pretty convincingly that it’s been over since election day; certainly, Trump hasn’t made any pretense of actual governance since then, preferring instead to sulk on the golf course, pursue quixotic lawsuits, and of course incite a failed coup attempt.)  The miserable trainwreck of the past four years, which have felt more like 400, will finally, at long last, be over. In my head, the countdown clock is now running.

However, given the ominous threat of more MAGA shenanigans, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic necessitating a socially distanced inaugural ceremony unlike any in living memory, I find myself imagining a very specific countdown clock, with a very specific sound effect…

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Lileks on the Awesome ’80s

It’s been a long, long time since I checked in on James Lileks. Longtime Loyal Readers may remember that name. I used to refer to him quite a bit here on Simple Tricks, back in the days when blogging was a going concern and we were all linking to each other in a big happy ecosphere… before the dark times… before social media.

I read his Daily Bleat regularly in that halcyon age, and I even aspired to model my own blogging efforts on the sorts of things he was doing. Then came The Lileks Incident, when something I wrote about him here got back to him. He slagged me pretty thoroughly, made me mildly famous for a couple days, and I was startled when his not-inconsiderable fanbase was so… unforgiving. It was probably pretty mild compared to the corrosive shitstorm that’s commonplace nowadays on Twitter, among other places, but at the time, I found it pretty difficult to take, especially where I felt like I’d been misunderstood. I contacted him, explained my side of it, we exchanged apologies, and that was the end of it. Except… I’ll be honest, the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth and shortly thereafter, I just… stopped going to his site. It was a big internet after all, and there was lots of other content to eat up my leisure time without any lingering embarrassment or resentment. C’est la vie.

It’s a shame, too, because in those early, heady days of the blogosphere, when people were homesteading themselves an online presence and declaring themselves and all their weird interests, it was easy to feel like you knew someone, like they were a friend, even if they had no idea you were even reading their stuff. Lileks had felt like a friend. I had emotional investment in him, in his interests and daily life, in stories of his daughter and his dog and his problematic backyard water feature. When he turned on me, even if he felt justified in doing so… it hurt. And for a long time after I stopped reading the Bleat, I felt like I’d lost a friend. Even though I knew he barely knew I existed. It was an important lesson in how this brave new world operated, and how harsh it could be.

Earlier today, I was going through a very old folder of bookmarks and came across the link to his site. My curiosity bloomed almost immediately. It’d been nearly a decade, I think, since I last read him. Was he even still out there anymore? Did I dare take a look? Although I’d always admired his writing ability, his turns of phrase and his sense of humor, his politics were not entirely compatible with my own and I frankly dreaded what the Bleat might have mutated into during the Trump years.

To my relief, it appears to be pretty much what I remember: close examination of architecture, pop culture, bits of ephemera, the details expounded upon for laughs and yet somehow he zeroes in on a kernel of truth about the way things were and how they are not that any longer, and what a shame that is. One new addition to the site soon caught my eye, something he’s calling “The 20th Century Project,” which consists of scans of old magazine ads, catalogs and other ephemera, organized by decade and described in his particular sensibility. Naturally, I turned to the subset of material from The ’80s first. Here’s his introduction to that decade that is so near and dear to my heart:

Yes, it was awesome.

Also, terrifying! Any minute now, nuclear war. Oh, and by the way, sex is fatal now. That said, it was everything you remember, or everything you heard, and so much less.

… think of it like a story told in a smoky bar with streetlights slanting through the venetian blinds. That sounds rather 40s, I know – but it was also very 80s, and we loved it, because it seemed as if we were back to one important basic lesson: the classics weren’t dead. We could bring them back to life at the same time we made up new ideas, and it all fit together. America was BACK! Also nuclear dread and deadly STDs, but you got your win and you got your wang.

I stand in awe of how he captures so much what made the ’80s “the ’80s” in so little verbiage, whereas I would probably carry on for another 2000 words without every managing to say anything. Nuclear dread, STDs, and bands of light through venetian blinds… that’s exactly how I remember it.

Yeah… I still want to want to do what he does, even as I watch the digital tumbleweeds blow past the weatherbeaten porch of this old platform…

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Christmas Eve Music Video: “I Believe In Father Christmas”

I posted a version of this song — “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake — four years ago to this day, but if anything I think it’s even more appropriate this year.

It’s a melancholy song about the loss of innocence. But while the second verse may seem somewhat bitter about that loss, I don’t read the song overall as bitter or depressing. Not even cynical, really. Just… clear-eyed. And I actually find the final verse, with its earnest lyrics and swelling instrumentation, quite uplifting:

“I wish you a hopeful Christmas,
I wish you a brave new year…
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.”

There have been so many deaths in the past nine months, so many things lost that we took for granted… in many respects, our entire way of life was snatched away from us in literally moments with no guarantee that is ever coming back, and we’re all still grieving for it. And there’s been a lot of turmoil coming from other sources as well. Our country, our world is filled with sorrow and fear right now… and a tremendous amount of anger too. Once those negative energies are unleashed, they don’t dissipate quickly or easily. I’m not so naive as to think that the turn of a calendar page or the inauguration of a new president is going to instantly undo the Lost Year of 2020. But just as this song ends on a grain of optimism, I do see a glimmer of better days ahead. At least, I hope that’s what the glow on the far-off horizon turns out to be. I hope. How strange that I, of all people, would be saying that.

Merry Christmas to all those who observe it, and for anyone reading this who does not observe or who observes something else, I wish you peace. May we all find a brave new year and a road that is clear.

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Self-Replicating Organism

Something interesting I just ran across (Saltz is the senior art critic for New York Magazine):

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In Memoriam: Sean Connery

When I was 20 years old, a friend of mine told me he thought I looked like Sean Connery.

I was flattered, of course. Connery had just been named the “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine — at the age of 59, no less — and who wouldn’t want to be compared to that? Still, I didn’t really believe there was any resemblance, and I said as much. I mean… Connery was Connery, and I was just… well, me.

No, no, my friend insisted, he could definitely see it… something about my dark eyes, the arch of my brows, and the shape of my recently grown beard. Something about my attitude as well, he thought, my gruff intolerance for nonsense combined with a devil-may-care twinkle. I just chuckled at the absurdity of what he was saying. And the more talking points he came up with, the more embarrassed I felt, until I finally conceded his argument just so he would shut the hell up about it. I’ve never responded well to compliments, I’m afraid; I always have this nagging fear that the person giving them is somehow having a laugh at my gullibility.

That feeling is even more intense when the compliment is something I want to believe.

This was the spring of 1990, and Connery had recently become one of my cinematic heroes in almost perfect conjunction with him catching the second wind of his career. He’d won an Oscar three years earlier for The Untouchables, he’d been absolutely sublime as Indiana Jones’ dad the previous summer, and the day my friend made his comparison, The Hunt for Red October was playing to sell-out crowds in the biggest auditorium of the multiplex where I worked. (In fact, the Red October poster was hanging only a few feet from where my friend and I were standing that day, and I remember him nodding toward it as he made his case for the resemblance.)

The funny thing is, I wasn’t even very familiar with Connery’s work at that point. I knew who he was, of course. I’d seen a few of his films over the years besides the trio I just mentioned. But until that one-two-three punch — The Untouchables, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Red October — he hadn’t made a huge impression on me. Not even his James Bond films had struck a chord at that point in my life. I was as likely to think of him as the marshal from Peter Hyams’ High-Noon-in-space film Outland as anything. But starting in 1987, those three films caused something to click for me, and really, for everybody else who was going to movies around that time, making him one of the biggest stars of the moment. And I am not ashamed to admit I developed a bit of a crush on him. Strictly nonsexual, of course, much like George Costanza had for that rock-climber dude on Seinfeld. Like George’s rock-climber, Sean was an ideal I was fascinated by and aspired to. He was just… cool. And yes, having someone say that I reminded them of him, or vice versa, made me glow inside like a belt of  single malt.

You see, the spring of 1990 was a low point for me and my ego, something I’ve alluded to a few times recently on this blog. I wasn’t feeling especially cool or confident or sexy that day at the movie theater, or any other day of that difficult year. My friend had inadvertently told me exactly what I wanted — or perhaps needed — to hear. Which is probably why it embarrassed me so much, because I wanted to believe it was true. It wasn’t that I wanted to look like Connery so much as I wanted to be like him. To radiate masculinity and confidence as he did, to be absolutely, effortlessly comfortable in my own skin, as he always appeared to be.

That was the key of his appeal, I believe. Even now, after all these years of calling myself a fan and having seen many, many more of his movies than I had in 1990, I’m not certain if he was actually that fine of an actor, or if I just responded to… him. When you think about it, most of the great movie stars are essentially playing themselves, or at least some carefully curated version of themselves, and that was Connery’s true skill: being Sean Connery. When he turned up at the end of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, that ripple of excitement that zinged through the theater wasn’t because he so perfectly portrayed Richard the Lionhearted in only 30 seconds and a handful of lines; it was because people were excited to see the man himself. Who cared what the role was?

Of course, Connery’s hot streak of the late ’80s and early ’90s couldn’t last. Over the next decade or so, he made (in my opinion) only one really good film (The Russia House), a handful of mediocre ones (Medicine Man, Entrapment, The Rock, Finding Forrester) and two of the absolutely worst flicks I’ve ever seen: The Avengers (no relation to the Marvel film) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The latter was such a trainwreck, both in front of and behind the camera, that it killed Connery’s career. After that, he decided he’d had quite enough of making movies and retired. I’ve long felt sorry that his filmography ends on such a smoldering turd instead of one final triumph. Even a cameo in the much-derided fourth Indiana Jones film, all other things being equal, would’ve been a better note to go out on.

It’s been nearly 20 years since League, and in that time, he’s mostly stayed out of the spotlight. There have been occasional rumors that he wasn’t well, that he was suffering from dementia, and I always cringed at the thought of a man whose entire image was built on vitality fading away like that. His reputation has diminished somewhat as well in the wake of the #metoo movement, thanks to a couple interviews he gave in his younger days that keep bobbing to the surface like rotten apples, and because of claims made by his first wife in her autobiography. I don’t have much to say on that subject; I have no idea if Connery was a raging misogynist in his private life or if his remarks were just badly phrased and taken out of context. And honestly, it doesn’t matter very much to me. Because what he represents to me was never strictly about him anyhow.

That Red October poster now hangs in my office at home, the very same poster from the lobby of the multiplex where I used to work. It’s watched over me for 30 years now, as hard as that is to believe. I look at it every morning when I walk into that room to prepare for my day. I looked at it for a long time on Halloween, just over a month ago, the day that Sean Connery died at the age of 90. And as I looked, I found myself thinking of the roles he played that have mattered to me for one reason or another. Captain Ramius, of course, and Henry Jones Sr., and Malone, the Irish cop who teaches Elliot Ness how to get Capone. Juan Sanchez Villalobos Ramirez from Highlander became hugely important to me just a couple years after 1990. There was Marshal O’Neill in Outland and Edward Pierce in The Great Train Robbery, as nifty a heist film as you’re ever going to find. Hell, I even thought of Zed, the barechested, ponytailed, red-diapered “Exterminator” in John Boorman’s insane 1974 sci-fi epic Zardoz; Connery’s costume in that is all the proof of his self-assuredness you’ll ever need. And of course, there’s Bond. The role that made him, the role he spent years trying to live down. As it happens, I’ve rewatched the entire series over the past year, including the “unofficial” Bond he made in the ’80s, Never Say Never Again, and I can say unequivocally that, in my opinion, Connery was the best of them. His individual films weren’t necessarily the best of the series, but none of the other actors who’ve played 007 ever had a moment like the scene where we first meet him in Doctor No. That will forever be James Bond to me.

Of course, the day that Connery died, I also thought about that spring day in 1990. About how I felt so wounded then, and how I preened at the words of a friend that I only half believed. I’m far more comfortable with myself now than I was then, and I still don’t see much of a resemblance between myself and Connery. But every once in a while when I look at that Red October poster, I find myself still wanting to imagine that maybe… just maybe.

Rest in peace, you Scottish peacock.

 

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