True Romance: 15 Years Gone

Maine Medical Center, northern New England’s largest hospital, sits on a bluff in Portland known as the Western Promenade, overlooking Route 295 and the Fore River just before it empties into Casco Bay. It was built in 1874.

Growing up in Massachusetts I had little knowledge of Maine, and would not be consciously aware of any of this until 2001.

* * *

I was standing on the sidewalk on Beacon Street, cast in the yellowish glow from the streetlight above, my legs somewhat unsteady and my lungs breathing fresh air for the first time in eight hours. The screech of the C Line reaching its terminus poked through my drunken haze, causing me to look up. Cleveland Circle.

My apartment was a couple of blocks away, down Comm Ave via Chestnut Hill Ave, towards BC. A short walk. It was close to midnight, probably time to pack it in, unless someone suggested grabbing some late-night chow, which was advisable. I had just spent the equivalent of a work day drinking within the puke-scented confines of Mary Ann’s, cheap beer from shitty tap lines, no food eaten in that span except for the time I ran across Beacon Street to the CVS to get myself a Snickers bar (Because it really satisfies, because it really satisfies, I kept telling myself as I hopped over the T tracks that bisected the street). That might have been around 7:00.

Shadowy faces of my companions under the harsh glare of the streetlamp. We were waiting for someone to say something, not quite ready to quit on the night, but trying muster an idea that would provide the inspiration to just get us to move.

My friend Rob glanced casually to his left, looking beyond the Dunkin’ Donuts, across Chestnut Hill Ave, past the Ground Round. To the Circle Cinemas. A slight grin stole across his face.

“Wanna go see True Romance again?”

I looked at my watch. 11:45. There was a midnight show.

Rob and I had seen True Romance earlier that afternoon, the day of its premiere, September 10, 1993. Our two friends with us at Mary Ann’s, Marjie and Jon, had not. But Rob and I hadn’t shut up about the movie all goddamn day (in between my commandeering of M.A.’s CD juke and shushing everyone to listen to the guitar solo in Dinosaur Jr’s “Start Choppin’” for about eight or nine times in a row, of course). And after being subjected to our rapturous and relentless endorsement of the movie, they were sufficiently primed to see it.

I opened my mouth. Speaking was a deliberate act at this point.

“Yes. Yes I do.”

So the four of us began to drift toward the theater, pulled like we were in the grip of some tractor beam, foolishly thinking we had made the conscious decision to go see this movie once more.

Glass doors swinging open. Cinema lobby pristinely bright, redolent of popcorn and melted butter. Pay your money, get your ticket, they let you in. God bless America.

A sweating plastic cup full of Cherry Coke cradled in one hand, the size of a mortar shell, ice swishing back and forth. A pack of strawberry Twizzlers clasped in the other. Falling into the plush blue fabric seat, ass slung low to the ground, head lolling back and looking at that vast expanse of screen, waiting for the images to start flickering and tell their story. Lights dimming.

And I sat through True Romance again, eleven hours after having first seen it, a shitfaced and open-mouthed grin on my face the entire time.

* * *

That spring I had somehow managed to get myself into a relationship with a girl who had no interest in me and would generally bong hit herself into oblivion in order to avoid our pathetic attempts at sex. In her defense, I’d have to say it was a justifiably sound strategy on her part. That this lasted for almost 5 months was testament to my naïveté, although I console myself now by saying that stupid is par for the course when you’re 22.

We started dating in April, she graduated from BC in May, and after a month or so of her fruitlessly searching for a job in Boston, she went up to Maine to work at the lobster restaurant where she had waitressed the past two summers. I had never really spent any time in Maine before, and at the very least, I figured my periodic visits to see her would give me the opportunity to explore parts of that strange and unknown state.

But it was the beginning of the end of us, mercifully enough. Because after two weekend visits (one in August and one in the beginning of September, Labor Day weekend, on her birthday), I began to worry more about the miles I was putting on my car than the state of our relationship. I didn’t think dumping her was the sort of thing I should do over the phone (despite the nagging feeling that she’d greet this development enthusiastically), so I made one last trip up on the Thursday after Labor Day to do the deed, and met her at the restaurant as she got off work. But instead of ending it right then, I proceeded to get bombed with her at the restaurant’s outdoor bar overlooking the water.

The next morning, I woke up and dumped her, as pre-emptive a move as I’d ever made to that point in my life. Smash cut to me in my car, driving south from Brunswick on Route 295, zipping past Portland and its hospital perched on a hill whose existence I was indifferent to, knowing it only as some random brick building I could see from the highway. And I was free.

I was going to be back in Boston by mid-day, it was a Friday, and I was going to get hammered and unleash my pent-up frustration on the unsuspecting streets of Allston/Brighton that night, but I had one thing to do first:

I was going to see True Romance.

Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs had been released that past winter, and it was such a refreshing jolt of pulp that it instantly made his next project worth keeping an eye on, and True Romance’s script was written by him (sold before Dogs even went into production, no less). I had a movie friend, Rob (a goofy bastard, but someone who loved film as much as I did), and he and I were going to catch it at some point that opening weekend, it was just a question of when. Being that my calendar was suddenly clear, it would now be that afternoon, the day of its premiere. Rob was waiting to go to grad school in Ireland — he would leave later that month — so he could do things like go to weekday matinees. The benefits of a liberal arts education.

I stopped at the Kennebunk rest area and called him from a pay phone, heady with the news:

“Meet me at the Dedham Showcase this afternoon, we’re going to the 1:00.”

* * *

At around 3:00, I walked out of the Showcase feeling as if someone had just hit me over the head with a large board. True Romance was trash, but it was dizzyingly beautiful trash. At times I crave cerebral (and sometimes inaccessible) film, but on occasion, you just have to sit back and admire the home run. It was like eating a Big Mac with a tub of ice cream and washing it down with a Schlitz tall boy. The most decadent Big Mac I had ever eaten, the sublimely sweetest ice cream I ever tasted, the coldest and crispest Schlitz I ever drank.

Rob and I felt like we were in on some earth-shattering secret, having just seen one of the greatest popcorn movies of all time, and having seen it first, no less. Just three other people had even been in the theater with us for the 1:00 show. Out on Route 1, in front of the theater, cars came and went, oblivious to what had just transpired. A blank blue sky stretched out overhead, unknowing. We had information. Our molecules fairly vibrated from the life-altering experience we just had, and it was as if we were both John the Baptist, knowing Things that others did not.

Keyed up, I drove back to my apartment on Comm Ave, Hans Zimmer’s Orff-evoking score still drumming in my head. Rob followed me in his car. I grabbed a case of beer along the way, feeling the rumble of the idling liquid-fueled Saturn V rocket that was the combination of me breaking up with my girlfriend and seeing this film within a span of 6 hours, knowing that blastoff was but a dive bar away. Arriving at my apartment, we power-slammed three beers apiece, then lit out on an unsuspecting city. I left the following note for my roommate, Jon, who would be getting out of work at 5:00:

“Free at last. At M.A.’s, meet us there.”

And once we entered the cool and dank confines of Cleveland Circle’s finest establishment, I proceeded to drink my face off. Jon and Marjie joined us later.

* * *

Snapshots of a life not quite real. Remember ViewMaster Clickers? A sort of hybrid between binoculars and a virtual reality visor, utilizing flimsy little cardboard wheels with tiny slides along their outside edges inserted into a slot on the viewer’s top. A chintzy little internal slide projector. Looking raptly through those lenses, you could be transported to a new world, probably Barbie’s Dream House or the Hall of Justice, the typical six-year old’s Louvre or Sistine Chapel.

The thing about the ViewMaster was the trigger. You pushed that button down with your index finger, spring compressing, the little cardboard wheel turning inside the ViewMaster, rotating the disc halfway down toward the next “slide” on the outside edge of the wheel. Letting that springloaded lever slip off your fingertip would snap the wheel up to bring the next image into view.

A garish photo lingering before your eyes, almost too close to comprehend as reality, and then you’d press the lever, and then… blackness. The gear inside the ViewMaster could be heard. The anticipation of the next image could be felt. And then the lever would swing back up, the next slide being revealed in all its wonder and glory. The world’s slowest strobe light.

Imagine letting your eyelids slowly slip closed, then opening them and seeing something completely different. But as fantastical as that new image may be, it’s the blackness in between that dictates the story, despite what your eyes tell you.

* * *

As it turned out, for all of the zeitgeist that we were sure True Romance would generate, nobody cared. They just didn’t care. It grossed $4 million in its opening weekend, $12 million during its total theatrical run.

But it has gained status on home video. I’ve owned three separate copies of the film: VHS, bought in 1994 when it was first released; the initial Director’s Cut DVD, picked up sometime in the late ‘90s as I was switching my library over to that format; and the unrated 2-disc version with the Scott and Tarantino audio commentaries, which I should have known to wait for in the first place. Not that I could’ve waited.

The thing I remember most about the day I first saw it was this indescribable giddy feeling: This why I go to the movies. The film’s two conversational showdowns – Slater/Oldman and Walken/Hopper – those are a master class in creating tension through subtext, and both are settled with big bangs. If you have an inner thirteen-year old somewhere within the recesses of your heart, where everything is couched in terms of bullets, drugs, witty movie references, and hookers with hearts of gold, this movie should strike a chord.

When all is said and done, I go to the movies to have fun. This movie was fun.

I watched True Romance again last night, a fifteenth anniversary viewing, sitting on a couch my wife and I had bought together at Hub Furniture in Portland, Maine. Maine, where we lived for four years from 2001 to 2005 after my wife randomly got a well-paying job up there. Maine, where I worked at Maine Medical Center for three years, the hospital where two of my three children were born. The hospital that overlooked a stretch of highway I passed through several times way back when, including a drive home to Boston on the morning of Friday, September 10, 1993, on my way to catch a movie.

And as I watched Christian Slater attempt to pick up a prostitute by telling her that if he had to fuck a guy, he’d fuck Elvis, there were actually three people occupying that corner spot on my couch, each existing in a separate dimension with a shared nexus: A thirteen year-old boy whose wildest dreams were somehow telegraphed onto the screen before him. A twenty-two year old young man who was aimlessly free and just beginning to sense the control he had over his own life, driving by some building on a hill in some city he neither knew nor cared about. And finally, the thirty-seven year old husband and father watching this movie now, his wife beside him, his children slumbering away off in their bedrooms as he looked at the images flickering across the screen, sensing that boy and young man within.

One Response to “True Romance: 15 Years Gone”

  1. Kevin, my friend, that was brilliant. And I was honored to be included in such a well-crafted, nay, perfect reflection.

    We have to get together soon. Far too much time has passed. Shoot me an e-mail or something.

    Hope to hear from you soon!


Discussion Area - Leave a Comment