Film: Born on The Fourth of July
Format: 70mm Six-Track Dolby. Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1 (35mm blowup)
Theater: Ziegfeld Theater
Date: Late January, 1990
The film school at
NYU has, or had, a long break between the fall and spring semesters. Depending
on when one finished up with finals & projects there could be an entire
month before spring classes began. Most years I was begging to go back to New
York City by the time the spring semester rolled around. It was always fun to
catch up with old friends, and this particular winter break my roommate
freshman year at USC, Darin, came to visit me between Christmas and New Years’.
I opted to go back
to New York City a week early to spend time with my girlfriend. She was a
friend zone girl I hung out with during the fall who eventually became more
than just a ‘friend.’ But it was complicated. Complicated in the way most
fledgling relationships in college are, but we had a magical December filled
with the sort of whirlwind New York City romance many an 80s romantic comedy
built its premise on, and I was looking forward to strengthening that
I arrived back in
New York City a week early, as promised, but there was no girlfriend. She
delayed her trip, and I spent most of those days puttering around the city
catching up on year-end films. Most of my friends were still on break, and as
large a city New York is, it can quickly become the smallest and loneliest
place to be when your friends are out of town. I did what I always did in times
of loneliness; I escaped into the dark comfort of the many movie houses of New
mid-week of my New York City solitude, my girlfriend rang my doorbell. She just
got into town, and I was her first stop. It was a relief and joy to see her.
The past few weeks since winter break began were torture without her, and now
1990 could officially begin. She suggested we go out to eat and catch up.
food, my girlfriend began to catch me up on her past few weeks. The
conversation shifted to the upcoming semester, and her mentioning how busy she
was going to be. Do you see what’s coming here? Have you not seen this film
before? The girl I worked so hard to turn a friendship into something more,
slowly built a case for not being able to hang out with me as much this semester.
As things became apparent, I uttered the words: “Wait a minute, are you
breaking up with me?”
My stomach twisted
into knots. Had this bomb been dropped after dinner had arrived I would have
thrown up. As it were, when the food showed up halfway through the delivery of
this news, I wasn’t able to touch a bite. The conversation shifted from school
schedules to the real reason: a former boyfriend from her past. Over the break,
she and this other guy rekindled their romance. She drove him back to school in
DC (this is why she came back to New York late) and they decided to make their
relationship exclusive. Naturally, she still wanted to be my friend. So, hey,
there was that.
The hammer came down so hard it took all my strength to stay conscious. We left the restaurant as quickly as I could get the check. One time in this same restaurant the two of us saw a boyfriend berate his girlfriend loudly. It was an awful and shameful scene. I wanted to make sure I didn’t cause a similar one.
I went through the grieving process in all the typical ways. I denied we were broken up and bargained we could continue to be friends. I thought if she and I hung out and acted the way we used to she’d come back to me. We did hang out several times after the breakup, but it was sheer agony for me. I could no longer be myself around her. I loved her too much, and I grew angry and cold. The two of us worked together in the NYU photo department, and it didn’t take long for the two of us to re-arrange our work schedules. The spring semester was a rough one for me. The breakup was bad, and I handled it even worse.
The week after our breakup classes began. I took video production that semester. One person who was excited to be in the same video production class with me was a girl named Laura. If you listened to part 1 of the Valentine’s Day podcast, you will recall the story of Laura and I going on a date to see Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange. Shortly after this date, I started seeing the girl who just broke up with me. The relationship happened so fast; I didn’t have time to tell Laura anything. Both of us were busy with end of the semester projects, but it was pretty clear I ghosted Laura a bit, and she was no doubt wondering what happened to me.
In the month since
fall semester passed, I had forgotten Laura. As soon as our first video
production class was over Laura followed me outside for an explanation as to
why she had not heard from me. I came clean. I told Laura I had experienced a
breakup and I wasn’t ready to move into a new relationship. She was surprised
because when could I have had the time for another girlfriend? I fudged the
timeline by not elaborating on the details of the relationship, but I saw the
puzzled look on Laura’s face.
I could have given
Laura a different story of why I blew her off and maybe tried to start fresh
with her. The truth was, I didn’t want a relationship with anyone. I was
wounded and not in a state for dating. Anyone I dated would have been a
rebound, and I didn’t want that. Laura didn’t seem upset, and we got along fine
the remainder of that semester. I even worked on her video production crew a
couple of times, but after that semester, we didn’t see each other again.
Through all the
bumps and painful missteps, there was one person who got me through the anguish
and rescued me from wallowing in self-pity: my friend, and permanent very
special co-host, Teal. Teal and I first met in early September of the fall
semester. It was during my brief phase of hanging out with a kid I met through
some mutual friends at a bar. The kid’s name was Gideon. One night, Gideon and
I walked over to the freshman dorm, Weinstein Hall, and rang up a freshman
Gideon knew from his private boarding school days. The freshman in question was
Teal came out to
the Washington Square Diner with Gideon and me for coffee and fries with gravy.
Back in those old days, Teal was a thin kid, maybe 140 pounds, with jet-black
hair, 5’11”, and taller with his ever-present black engineer boots on. Teal’s
wardrobe was a pair of roughed up button fly jeans, a black turtleneck shirt and
a thin black leather jacket. He was a character straight out of a Kerouac
novel, and he modeled his life philosophy as if he were in one too. Teal came
off as more serious than your typical eighteen-year-old, with an intellect far
beyond his years. Teal could tell a joke, but he wouldn’t break while he said
it. The most you might get was a wink or a slight grin. Teal was cool. He had
an energy about him that attracted listeners. During our first encounter at the
Washington Square Diner, Teal provided me with the sage advice of ‘expect the
after that night Gideon and I stopped by Teal’s dorm to see if he wanted to
come out and hang with us, but each time Teal’s roommate informed us Teal was
not home. In early October, one evening while working at the NYU photo department,
I ran into Teal again. He was snooping around the halls of the photo department
on some mission. As part of a freshman photo class for film students, Teal
would occasionally have darkroom work to do. He recognized me first.
“Hey Jim, right?”
Said Teal. It was James, but Teal had the basic idea. “I’m looking for
someone.” Teal then proceeded to enlist my help in locating a photo student
with an unusual name. I don’t know why Teal was looking for her, but after a
little detective work I figured out the name. Teal wanted to get in touch with
this girl and asked if I would pass along his name and number to her the next
time I saw her.
When Teal showed
up and enlisted me on his mission, I was getting off work. I rode the elevator
down with Teal. Instead of parting ways Teal asked if I wanted to hang out. The
two of us made our way over to the Washington Square Diner for coffee and fries
with gravy. There I learned Teal had purposely avoided Gideon when Gideon and I
came by Teal’s dorm the past few times. Teal found Gideon annoying, and he did
not want to encourage him. Teal said he enjoyed meeting me, but he couldn’t
deal with Gideon. By now I already knew how annoying Gideon could be and I
assured Teal I wasn’t hanging out with him anymore. Teal and I left the diner
and exchanged numbers. This unexpected encounter had begun a friendship.
Tapp was a photo
student I barely knew, and she rarely glanced at me when she came to the photocage
to sign up for darkroom time and get her equipment. But the next time I saw her, I told her my friend Teal was looking for her, and I
gave her Teal’s number. The two had a mutual acquaintance or something. I left
a message on Teal’s answering machine to let him know I accomplished the
In late October, I
ran into Teal on the street. He thanked me for getting Tapp’s number. He had
plans to hang out with her soon. Tapp soon became Teal’s friend zone
relationship. While I was successful in turning a corner with my friend zoner,
Teal could not break through with his. On this night Teal was heading to his
cousin’s apartment. Teal’s cousin was an independent filmmaker who had been
doing the film festival circuit with one of his recent independent movies. Teal
and a different friend from his boarding school days, Erik, were going to hang
out at Teal’s cousin’s apartment and watch The Great Escape. Teal invited me to
join them. The Great Escape was one of my childhood favorites, and Steve
McQueen was one of my idols. All Teal had to do was say Great Escape, and I was
friendship began, bonding over our love for all things Steve McQueen. From this
night on Teal and I hung out a lot. Teal and Erik moved uptown to Riverside
Drive to sublet Teal’s cousin’s friend’s place until the end of the school
The day after my
breakup I got a call from Teal. He was back in town from winter break, and I
told him what had happened. Teal insisted I come uptown to hang out with him
right away. A great friend sees someone in need and nurses him or her back to
health. Teal did this for me. When I was hanging out with him, many subway
stations away from my troubles in the village, I forgot the pain of my breakup
and concentrated on having fun.
During the first week of spring semester classes, Teal called me up and asked me to see the new Oliver Stone film, Born on The Fourth of July, which he had not seen. I saw the movie at home while I was on winter break. I didn’t think it was as good as the critics had said, but in these dark times, any excuse to get me out of my apartment at night was a good thing.
Teal had me meet him at the theater. Many theaters were playing Born on The Fourth of July, but for Teal, only one venue would do: the Ziegfeld Theater where it was playing in 70mm. I had not been to the Ziegfeld, but Teal swore by it. If there was a big action movie or epic playing Teal said there was no place else like the Ziegfeld to see it.
From the outside the Ziegfeld appeared to be no more than a giant box attached to a building; its most distinguishing feature was its title sign formed into the cursive signature of its namesake lit up in tiny bulbs. Even this one gesture made the everyday passerby wonder of the mysteries hidden inside. The Ziegfeld was second to the Loews Astor Plaza Theater in size. I never made it to the Astor, but my film crewmate, Mike swore by it. The Astor sat more than 1,400 people while the Ziegfeldhad 1,100 seats. Once inside, the Ziegfeld was grand. In my memory, it was the greatest film palace of them all. There were ornate decorations, memorabilia from the original Ziegfeld Follies lined the staircase to the upper level of the Movie Theater and gorgeous chandeliers hung in the lobby. Everywhere I looked was a cinema paradise.
Teal and I entered
the upper portion of the Ziegfeld Theater. It was stadium seating before
stadium seating was a thing. In front of us was a large curtain disguising the
biggest movie screen I had encountered. This place was my answer to the Charles
Cinema in Boston. Teal loved seeing films at the Ziegfeld. He too was a fan of
the 70mm film experience and knew the way to enjoy such splendor was to see a
movie projected on the biggest screen with the best sound. Teal and I were
different in personality and temperament, but what brought us together and
bonded us as friends was a similar adventurous spirit, a film-geek nature, and
the shared love of getting lost in the movies for a couple of hours.
Born on The Fourth of July started and I was watching an entirely different film this time around. Cinematographer Bob Richardson’s saturated colors popped off the screen, and the print was as sharp and crisp as any print I had seen. The sound was lush and, at times, overwhelming with the power of the Ziegfeld Theater’s speakers. Movies today are designed for a surround-sound mentality and feature reduced frequency range to accommodate the majority of multiplex theater sound systems. Aside from IMAX, I have yet to see a non-six-track 70mm film that could deliver the dynamic decibel sound range in the digital error matching what I was fortunate enough to experience at the Ziegfeld. In 1990 the Ziegfeld provided the best sound out of any theater I had been to, and this experience marked the first of many films Teal, and I would see together over the years, and it came at a time when I needed the escape, and a friend.