I remember my mother, pointing at a black man in Eiband’s Department Store, telling a crowd of white men and women: “He touched that woman." Her face was angry and self-righteous. We had black maids the entire time I was growing up. I went to segregated schools. I didn’t have a single black friend. And yet, when I drifted into the civil rights movement at the University of Texas in 1961, tying up the ticket line at the Varsity Theater and having long conversations about the real goals of the movement with the Reverend B.T. Bonner seemed as natural to me as going to a Clarence Ayres class or listening to Shostakovich while reading Updike in the library of the student union. Such is the transformative power of literature and film. When I had measles as a child, my grandmother and her sisters took turns reading to me. I don’t remember the title of a single book. Outside of the books we read aloud in class and comic books of all kinds, I only remember reading Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane detective stories, a few Reader’s Digest books and Peyton Place before I graduated from high school. I vividly remember the Peyton Place scene of a man giving his pregnant wife head. Somehow, though, young Phaethon, plummeting to earth from the Sun God’s chariot, slipped in and nudged the Yellow Dwarf and his Spanish Cat off of the beaten path.
The summer before I went away to college for the first time I set out to get ready for college by reading “everything” but I don’t think I got very far. I enrolled in an American Literature seminar and was laughed at when I named James Michener as an important American writer. I was mortified. But in another seminar I heard Chaucer read in Middle English and snapped to what college and college professors were about. I cut classes to read Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Teilhard de Chardin, Mailer, Algren, Jones, Shaw and Ginsberg. I saw films by Vadim, Truffaut, Godard and Bergman. I moved into a boarding house full of vets going to school on the GI Bill. I made drunken road trips to Mexican border towns.
I witnessed the advent of color, wide screens, surround sound and Dolby, 3D, theater complexes with tiny theaters, naked women and almost naked men on the big screen in living color and in black-and-white. By the time I had graduated from high school, dropped out of college a couple of times, been drafted into the Army, lived in Germany where I wrote for an American tabloid, and got back to the states, I had been watching movies for over 20 years, but I don’t remember commenting on a single one of them to anyone until, watching Scorpio Rising (1963) sometime late in the summer of 1967, I turned to a friend and whispered: “Did he just say that Jesus was a queer?” And my friend, turning his leering, acid-distorted face my way, replied: “I don’t know. But I like the way he said it.”
That was my first brush with metonymy, a concept that, like mise-en-scène, I experienced long before I had a name for it. Years later, over dinner one night, I tried to sell the importance of metonymy in film to the Greek wife of a museum director. She cut me off. “Man lives by metaphor,” she said.