By Boey Kim Cheng
There are movies that change your life forever, that seem to read and reflect your life so uncannily they become part of you, and the experience of watching them deepens into memories just as vital as memories of real, dramatic events. Especially memorable are the growing up movies that you watch in your growing pains period; you identify so closely with the stories and characters that, like the character played by Mia Farrow in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, you step across the celluloid screen into a space where illusion becomes reality; you live in the movie and the movie lives in you.
In my formative years there was a succession of coming-of-age films which seized me so completely that I felt I had left a part of myself in the screen when the credits rolled and the screen faded out. These were life-changing films, and the level of intense feeling and thinking they triggered wasn’t a temporary state, but something that I can feel even now, right in the desolating realities of middle age. What added to the experience was watching it with the friends of my youth, angry young men in the last year of college, dreading two and a half years of national service ahead. Boon was stout, hearty, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, and had a devil-may-care air about him; Francis had an irrepressible mirth and chain-smoked once out of school uniform. Chiang was rebelling against his Christian upbringing, learning to sing and play Bob Dylan on his guitar. Seng saw oppression and injustice all around him and fumed with impotent rage. We had all read Camus and affected a kind of existential revolt.
Camus was far from our minds as we sat in silence on the front steps of Orchard Cinema, dazed, enraptured by the film we had just watched. No movie had stirred us up, and struck at the core of our confused hearts so much as Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s cult classic The Outsiders. The film, with its themes of adolescent alienation and rebellion, had spoken so powerfully to our own sense of disenchantment and lonely outsiderness. We were misfits and naturally took the side of the slick-haired greasers in the movie, who are from the gritty side of town, engaged in turf wars with the wealthy middle-class socs.
The scene that would stay with us most, that sent us to the library looking for Robert Frost, was when two of the greasers, Ponyboy and Johnny, hiding in the country after killing a soc in a fight, recite Frost’s short but pithy poem “Nothings Stays Gold.” It is a lyric moment, gorgeously filmed with lush sunset colours, and for us, the lost gang, it was a scene that bespoke the heartrending loss of youth, and the transience of beauty and life.
The cast were young, rising stars that cut their teeth in Coppola’s film: Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell and Tom Cruise. We had watched James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, both playing loner protagonists who appealed to our need for a heroic model. But they were remote, inaccessible, whereas watching these young stars who were about our age gave a poignant quality to the movie; we would mature with them and follow them into middle age, when the rebellious fire seems to die, and shades of mortality begin to close in. In middle age the friends of your youth start to fade away, succumbing to illnesses that were inconceivable in youth, when you felt immortal, and despite an obsession with death and dying, felt that it could never happen to you. You are shocked to discover that close friends, who have somehow disappeared from your life, have dropped dead. I didn’t find out about Boon and Francis’s deaths until recently.
But this was still far away in those golden years, when there were more wonderful films we would watch together, always, strangely, at Orchard Cinema. Perhaps it was because of the bowling arcade behind it; we bowled only a couple of times, but loved loafing amidst the resounding strikes as the balls slams into the pins. And there was Centrepoint just across the road, the coolest place then for the young to hang out, especially the rebellious ones.
We watched The Purple Rose of Cairo and Brazil, films that filled us with more burning questions; then there was Runaway Train, Kurosawa’s last film, and Stand By Me, which was as moving as The Outsiders, in its portrayal of a group of boys who embark on a journey of discovery. Then, as the decade closed, we saw one last coming-of-age movie together – Dead Poets’ Society. Boon really took to it, reciting Whitman for days afterwards.
But it is The Outsiders that, despite its melodramatic flaws, has come to be emblematic of the time of our lives, when we were young and forgot our misery, our futile rebellious selves, as we sat in the comforting cave-like darkness of the cinema, and saw the story of our lives play out in cinemascope on the wide screen, standing there with Johnny, bathed in golden light, beside Ponyboy as he read Frost’s poem:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.