(If you missed it, you can read Part I here.)
The book opened to a page with more writing, but this was different. I immediately recognized the words “Once upon a time,” which I was familiar with from bedtime stories, but apparently I’d hadn’t yet grown jaded to that worn-out phrase by age five. Besides “Snow White” I probably didn’t know any of the other words on the page, but what did it matter? These letters had color: red, blue, gold… And pictures! Not only was there a dove inside the “O” in “Once upon a time,” but the letter was also topped with a crown. A chipmunk peeked over the “O” and several other animals gathered around. In the corner I noticed another crown covering a scrub brush and more gold ornamentation…
Wait, someone’s turning the page and I’m still looking! What’s the meaning of this?
I had just learned one of the fundamentals of movie-watching that would remain out of my control for years. Not until I owned a VCR could I stop a movie and linger over it or go back and watch scenes again and again. In those days you had to remember as much as you could as quickly as you could. The moving image could only be brought back either by your memory or by buying another ticket and watching the movie again. (Or, as I was to find out later, by sticking around inside the theater, evading the staff, and sitting through the next showing. Another story for another time.)
Yet none of my misgivings mattered because we were on to the castle, a glorious structure perched on an enormous hill, situated between leaves in the foreground framing the picture and trees in the distance. None of the cartoons I’d seen on TV looked like that. I didn’t understand that the smaller houses in the foreground, as well as the leaves and trees, helped convey distance and perspective. I knew nothing of the way the sun illuminated the castle on the right side of the frame (as well as the lightness of the clouds) contrasted with the shadowy left side of the castle and the slightly darker clouds adjacent to it. And these clouds moved. The castle seemed to reach up into the heavens, its peaks pointing skyward. You don’t understand any of this at five, so you just stare open-mouthed and say “Wow….”
As the action moved through a window to the interior of the castle, the Queen appeared in a long black cape, approaching a huge mirror in a darkened room. This did not bode well. If I had been watching this at home, all the lights would have been on, removing the feeling of dread from this anxious moment, but the theater was nearly pitch black. Although I could have looked at the clock and the exit sign, I didn’t. I was too caught up in the scene before me.
The Evil Queen’s image reflected in the mirror, followed by the sound of wind, flashes of lightning, and finally an angry fire. Then a face appeared. Not quite a human face, this visage was more like a mask, yet it moved. It was also disembodied, and I didn’t understand what happened to the rest of this person. Was it a person? Smoke rose from somewhere beyond the bottom of the mirror, some dark, endless place where something kept burning forever, I supposed. I didn’t yet know about hell or souls in torment or any such things, but I knew this entity inside the mirror was probably trapped and would like to get out. Maybe the Queen had put him there as punishment for something he did wrong.
I didn’t have time to think about any of that, because the mirror began to speak. The voice was deep, and as the mirror spoke, the face became distorted, twisted. I was too far gone to pay much attention to the words the mirror spoke. I was too busy watching the wide mouth as it moved, hearing deep, bottomless sounds coming from its purple lips, sounds mixing with the layers of smoke until they arose to the mirror’s surface. The eyes looked inhuman, as if a strong man had taken his fists and hammered away at the mirror face.
I was five years old. I was terrified, and I was fascinated. I’d never seen anything like this before. Something in me wanted it to end, yet there was something else at work in me that longed for this moment to go on and on. My mom couldn’t have pried me loose from my seat if she’d tried. Had she known that this moment would be responsible for what could rightly be called a lifelong addiction to movies, she probably would’ve kept me at home. But the damage was done, and there was no turning back.
After a moment of reprieve, which involved innocent birds and a prince, we were treated to more terror as Snow White enters the dark forest, encountering trees with branches reaching out like hands, eyes emerging from the darkness, violent wind, and more. Yet something about this scene carried less power than the Magic Mirror. Maybe it was because I had already seen a dark forest in my illustrated book of fairy tales. Or perhaps one real scare per movie was all I was permitted at that age, and the Magic Mirror had already claimed that.
I honestly didn’t remember much about the rest of the movie until I rewatched it yesterday for the first time in over 50 years. Snow White taught me something that remains with me today, giving me one of the first lessons in story fundamentals: There is some type of conflict in practically every movie, story, book, or other artistic endeavor. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this holds true. Most of these conflicts are between good and evil. These are big concepts, but not so big that they can’t be grasped, at least on some level, by young children. I would encounter the same conflicts in Sunday School and church, on the playground, in sports and band, in history classes, and sometimes with the people I played with. Maybe my playmates and classmates weren’t necessarily evil (although I had doubts about some of them), but we had our share of conflict. And it wasn’t just me. I saw grownups having conflicts as well. You don’t have to look far. Sometimes they’re in the same house with you.
When she took me to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I’ll bet my mom had no idea she was introducing me to concepts of good and evil, not just in this fairy tale, but in other movies I would see at the Town Theatre over the next 20 years, in westerns, horror, science fiction, love stories, thrillers, and even comedies.
When I was a little older, I saw ads for upcoming horror movies that sometimes included the line, “Keep telling yourself ‘It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.’” As children we soon grow into an understanding that this is true, yet as much as we might tell ourselves “It’s only a movie,” the power of cinema is hard to dismiss when you’re faced with something scary, horrific, or terrifying. As we mature there’s a part of us that knows that this or any other movie is simply a fabrication, a fantasy. You go to the movies, sit in a darkened theater, and for a couple of hours you’re in another world, sometimes a world that frightens you, makes you laugh, cry, or moves you to do something or look at the world differently.
In his acceptance speech for an honorary Oscar in 1990, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, after a lifetime spent creating brilliant films, said, “I’m a little worried because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have grasped the essence of cinema.” If a master filmmaker believed that, what chance do any of us mortals have in making sense of movies and how they affect us? I don’t know. But I do know that my journey began with a face inside a darkened mirror. And my journey continues. Maybe yours does too.