My First Time

I should really call this West Side Story since it concerns my Aunt Lilly who lived on the 5th floor of 736 West End Avenue, right opposite PS 75. I'd grown up on the East Side where I frequented the Brandt's and Loews on 86th Street for double features on Saturday mornings. Most of the Westerns I saw there and the matrons with their swinging flashlights and their constant "all of ye's kids shuddup" meld together in a vast nightmare that would eventually include school crossing guards and local fast food establishments like Horn and Hardart's, Nedick's and Have-a-Pizza, whose 15 cent slices inevitably burned the tip of my tongue. These were the ingredients of my own anti-Amarcord with the coup de grace involving a sickening purplish grape drink sold in the the movie concession stands, a kid with an overly large head who was probably suffering from hydrocephalus, and swung a dangerously large chain of keys and the overly salty pretzels we would buy after the double features (and which I continue to buy when I have the urge to self-mutilate).

I must comment that as a kid I hated all Disney animated stories of the Cinderella variety which is probably why I gravitated toward Italian neo-realism before I even reached puberty. But I am ,getting ahead of the story of how my Aunt Lilly took me to see my first Antonioni movie, L'avventura the first of the trilogy that includes L'eclisse and La Notte - both of which I would eventually see at the Thalia which was right around the corner from her apartment. Lilly was not a Jewish intellectual to the extent that she was not a Communist or even liberal (like some other relatives), nor conversant with ideas, but she liked the idea of culture. She worked for New York State Unemployment and sewed the dresses she wore to the Metropolitan Opera (which she scrimped and saved to purchase tickets for) from Vogue patterns. She also had copies of Alberto Moravia's Two Women and Virginia Woolf's Orlando in her modest bookcase, but in retrospect I'm convinced her interest in these books and the Antonioni was basically prurient.

Monica Vitti was a sex symbol and it's clear to me that Lilly dragged me to the Symphony or some other Broadway theater where L'Avventura was having a commercial (as opposed to an art house) run because she was titillated by the thought of the illicit scenes she expected to see. This wasn't child abuse. I'd wager her fantasies were so deeply unconscious that a team of psychoanalytically orientated brain surgeons armed with nuclear level truth serum couldn't have extracted an admission from her. The experience of seeing L'avventura had a huge effect on me to the extent that I married a woman who is a Jewish version of an Italian film star, a unique mixture of Monica Vitti and my aunt, Lillian Gewing.

{Photo of Monica Vitti}

{This originally appeared in the My First Time Column of the Film Forum newsletter. A restored negative of L'avventura is currently being exhibited at Manhattan's Film Forum}