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 relationship.
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 York City.
One night, 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.
After ordering 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.
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 unexpected.’
Several times 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 mission.
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 in.
Thus, our 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 year.
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.