Reel Life

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How I Became a Movie Reviewer: The Ghosts of Movies Past

Movies remind us we are alive and in it together.

Wisdom and enlightenment come from many experiences, even from growing up in a funeral home in a crumbling antebellum mansion in the Deep South. My father was off at The War, my grandmother stone deaf, my mother stone drunk.

The house, as well as the family itself, was a stage setting for my imagination. My little sister and I were not alone: there was a houseful of ghosts that came out from the shadows on the walls. My sister and I tried to keep one another sane amidst the daunting realization of death. Together we experienced the inescapable fragility of life. We all share it, and it scares us. We have no way to overcome it except to share it.

Our world was macabre. Our closest reality connection was the movie house a few blocks away. There the simplistic, cartoonish world of absolute good and evil was replaced by curiosity and fascination about the mysteries of real people, inside and out. My sister was my only audience as I told my stories. I tried, through my story telling, to make the stories alive and vivid, as if in technicolor and stereophonic sound.

I wanted to be a movie star, but I looked less and less like Clark Gable by the time I was 10. Mother's Cousin Charles lived in Hollywood. According to family legend, he won the 1920 Pentathalon, the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, and a Rhodes Scholarship. He came to see us once. He showed me a picture of himself dancing with Shirley Temple. He was charming; we gave him bus fare back to California. Maybe I could make movies.

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Those who have the audacity to criticize must then expect to be criticized. So I sought the safety zone, which was not behind the camera but behind the audience-as a film critic. I wanted to get inside so I became a doctor. I wanted to go deeper, to find what malignancy, but also what beneficence, lurks in the hearts and relationships of men and women.

Art breathes life into the faces and bodies on screen. It illuminates the necessary truths of human lives. Nothing probes as deeply into the soul as the movies-closer and deeper than a colonoscopy. We beg to see what makes us all so much more alike than otherwise. The movies bring us into the scene, they blow up the big screen, while the little screen in the living room, which came along decades later, shrinks and trivializes what it exposes, makes it manageable.

Even today, when conversation flags, I tell a story, my way, exposing truths I believe, and playing out the drama that would bring it to life. I wrote for my college newspaper, my hometown newspaper, four books, a ton of articles and, for 26 years, movie reviews in the Psychotherapy Networker, and wherever there was someone to read or hear.

It started with a shadow on the wall and grew to encompass the burning of Atlanta, the sinking of the Titanic, the smile of Audrey Hepburn, the tears of Meryl Streep, the voice of Morgan Freeman, the steps of Fred Astaire.

And we know we are alive and in it together.

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a psychiatrist/family therapist in Atlanta., author, international lecturer and film critic.

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