In the late ’60s and early ’70s, I initiated an evening film festival at a local high school. I was young and foolish enough to believe that if herded into one setting, students and adults could, as they say, get it on.
The New York State Council on the Arts agreed to subsidize the program featuring movies like “The Bicycle Thief” (Italy) and “Jules and Jim” (France). To lure the kids in, I included “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The last entry was the controversial “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”
One ticket covered eight screenings.
Peter Bradley from the council warned me that these kinds of festivals typically attract a handful of viewers; he felt sorry for me.
The morning after the first screening, I called with the news: 850 adults and students showed up. The council’s annual report cited the festival as “one of the most successful of its kind, not only in the state but in the country.”
Eventually, with the advent of the VCR, the program ran its course. But in retrospect, it was a daring venture. Parents and kids showed up for screenings of “The Graduate” and the R-rated “Midnight Cowboy.” Adults and teens talking as equals.
Overall it was, on many levels, a valuable and enjoyable learning experience — one almost marred by the usual suspects. Thankfully, I had the support of the principal, a conservative Republican who believed in the value and sanctity of free speech.
The trouble began when he summoned me into his office; he was getting these calls. Was I really screening a vulgar movie in class? I told him truthfully I never heard of “Pink Flamingos.” He believed me, and that was that.
Who were these people, I wondered. Soon, I found out.
A girl in a literature class (let’s call her Sarah) asked to see me after class, and before she began to speak tears streamed down her face.
Did I know that at her church, a mighty contingent of parishioners was out to get me?
Sarah reported that at a morning prayer meeting, that they said awful things, such as I sat students in a circle so that I could peek up the girls’ skirts. And I showed “dirty” films in class. And I came to class high on pot.
Sarah’s heart was in a good place. She wanted to warn me. Yet, she felt guilty betraying her mother. I told her that since none of these accusations had an iota of substance, she need not worry.
I should say now that the detractors came from this one church whose members were evangelical Christians. “So this is how they work,” I remember thinking as I pondered the situation.
It’s like the movies — maybe Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.” A teacher maligned. I related the incident to the principal. He shook his head, sat back and sighed.
One evening at a PTSA meeting, a student from the aforementioned congregation testified that he found a certain film offensive and when he tried to leave the auditorium, I made him stay.
Warned that I would be the target of a “witch hunt,” I walked in as he told his story with his mother and father at his side, both expressing visible disgust. (Let’s call them Fritz and Irma).
When I had a chance to speak, I told the simple truth. That I had never forced anyone to sit through a movie and that if I did stop a student, it was to remind him that, pursuant to school policy, he had to leave the premises.
And by the way, I added, have any of you seen the movie? No one had.
By then, I was worn out, exasperated by an experience I increasingly found humiliating. I remember telling a friend that if these alleged Christians get into power, God help us.
Even so, I remember those early days with great fondness, even as I am wizened by my bouts with elements of the religious right, who deep down want America to be a God-fearing, Christian country. So much so, that many of them will bear false witness against their neighbors, believe lies that suit their agenda and pervert historical fact in order to advance their fire and brimstone mission.
One evening, during a horrible snowstorm, a car slid into my driveway. Through the icy mist, I spied an approaching figure. It was Fritz, the father of the boy who accused me of unjust detainment.
By the time Fritz stepped into my living room, he was sobbing. Something possessed him, a thing he had to get off his chest. And in a blinding snowstorm, no less.
Finally, I discerned the source of his anguish. He came to apologize for keeping a safe silence while I was falsely accused.
He asked me to forgive him. This man, this convert from Judaism, was, I concluded, dealing with demons. I told him there was nothing to forgive, that I respected what amounted to an act of contrition.
Seconds after he departed, the doorbell rang. It was Fritz again, armed with a plaintive request.
“Can you help me?” he said. “I’m stuck in a snowbank.”
Contact Dan DiNicola at [email protected]