Two men and a picture palace

MANY MOONS AGO, before editing books was a glimmer at the end of my nib, I worked as an usher at Hoyts Midcity Cinemas on Bourke Street in Melbourne. It was the mid 1980s, which puts me in my mid-twenties.

I don’t know how I landed the job. More likely than not, I asked and was given. You could do that in those days. You walked into an establishment that looked vaguely desirable and wouldn’t be too soul destroying and you asked if there was a vacancy. People rarely turned you down and if one day you didn’t show up they presumed you’d given up and moved to Frankston to live on the dole.

I had no idea what I wanted to do. Not much was expected of me and I expected less of myself. Drifting from one dead-end job to another was habitual. I tried it all: shoe salesman, car salesman, storeman’s assistant in a factory, and a brief stint as a model. On it went. I was not overly interested or very good at any of it and nothing lasted for long.

The only passion was movies. Reality was an adjunct to be tolerated between wondrous, magical bouts of cinema. During high school, I played truant many times to stay home and watch the midday movie. Though I was well versed in contemporary cinema, I had a soft spot for Hollywood movies from the 1940s. European cinema, especially French and Italian, ranked high, as did horror movies. I was an eclectic viewer and an insufferable film snob. Anyone who fell into my sphere of influence was inducted to the cause and browbeaten into appreciating the films I held in high esteem, whether they wanted to or not. 

I don’t recall how I became an usher, but I know why: free movies, day in, day out, dusk till dawn. And you got paid to watch them. To live forever in that flickering, ghostly world and to rarely encounter daylight is paradise for a nascent cinephile.

What I couldn’t have known was that Hoyts Midcity Cinemas was a rough place. The multiplex backed on Chinatown, which was pretty seedy, and it screened a lower class of film than the Cinema Centre up the road and Greater Union round the corner. It was a safe bet that if a film had a number after the title, Midcity screened it. Gems like 9 1/2 Weeks, Runaway Train and Blue Velvet were rarities and, much to my disgust, played to near empty houses. How we ended up with the revival of Some Like It Hot is anyone’s guess. 

Our patrons reflected the content perfectly. No one in their right minds could mistake them for ‘discerning’ filmgoers. They were more likely to stab you than discuss Stroheim’s influence on Peter Greenaway. 

Security was tight. Burly uniformed bouncers were employed to keep the ushers safe and to stop patrons from hurting each other during Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson extravaganzas. You never knew where or when violence would erupt. 

The volatile environment fostered strong relationships between employees. We were a close-knit group. There was Trish at the candy bar; Peter, the manager; James, the uni student making ends meet; Ross, a young upstart who did god knows what in head office; an unemployed actor with attitude; and Ivan, the projectionist who looked like the biker from Village People. When a session was underway, we gathered in the foyer to gossip and philosophise, the air rich with the stench of popcorn, Fantales and Coke.  

Many things were uttered in the best tradition of standing around and gabbing. Most if not all was hot air, filling the hours as we waited for a shift to end. Being a cool customer, I didn’t seek out friends. Nor did I particularly want to talk to anyone. Yet talk sought me out. Happiness was watching films in the dark and walking to my flat at midnight. As to what impression I left on the minds of my colleagues, I didn’t give it a thought. I was detached and floating, knowing the job would soon be over. 

AT MIDCITY CINEMAS ushers had absolute power. We were entrusted with collecting tickets at the entrance, seating late arrivals, cleaning up between sessions, and patrolling the premises. Rules were strictly enforced. Recalcitrants punished without mercy. 

I was the usher from hell. No one got away with playing up on my beat. Bad behaviour was met with worse behaviour from me. Tempers flared, voices were raised, threats were made. If anyone looked disruptive during a movie I was on to them like Thor’s hammer.

Once a ‘hood’ pulled a knife when I tried to confiscate his alcohol during a screening of a bloodstained epic. A bop on the head with the plastic torch quickly put him out of action. Security took care of the rest. On another occasion a man stole a packet of chips from the candy bar. Trish yelled ‘Stop thief!’, as if she were in a bad movie. The thief dashed across the orange and brown foyer and I gave chase. Just as it looked like he would escape, I leapt on his back and brought my torch down on his skull. He collapsed beneath me like a sack of potatoes. Security magically appeared to toss him into the cold night. It was never clear to me how the security guys knew where the action was. They were never there when you needed them, yet they always appeared to clean up the mess.

Later I discovered that the head usher and the manager sat in the back office, watching my antics on strategically placed security cameras. It appears my unorthodox customer relations were relished for their entertainment value. Though it must be said, I was lenient on teenagers who sat up the back during screenings of Re-animator to canoodle.

Two incidents stand out from this time. Both involve lavatories. 

One Saturday evening – it was the last session of the night – a man approached me in the foyer. ‘You better go check out the dunnies up the back,’ he said. ‘Something fishy going on there.’ 

I alerted security and, without waiting for them to arrive, headed to the facilities. They were at the rear of the building – perfect for shenanigans. Tinny muzak accompanied by the automatic flushing of urinals greeted my ears as I entered the smelly sanctum. Of the three cubicles against the wall only one presented a closed door. A peek under the gap revealed one pair of feet – bare and not in a position that indicated a seated individual. Feeling silly, I asked if everything was alright. When an answer was not forthcoming, I entered the next cubicle, stood on the toilet seat and peered over the partition. A stark naked man was in a frenzy of excitation. 

‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Sorry to disturb, but security’s on the way. If I were you I’d leave.’ Turned out he was a sailor. He couldn’t find a girl and didn’t want to waste money on a brothel. So he thought, why not...? The truncated history of his life to this point was related to me as he quickly pulled on his clothes. ‘But jeez mate, you sure gave me a scare appearing like that outta the blue,’ he finished off. 

‘You better go out the back door,’ I advised. ‘Otherwise you’ll bump into security.’ The look of gratitude in his eyes added to the farce. ‘Thanks, mate. See ya later.’ 

Needless to say management was not amused when my Good Samaritan act flashed up on the ever-watchful security cameras. Though they were infinitely grateful when I was drawn into a greater, more tragic drama in the women’s toilets some time later.

I was obliged to enter the forbidden zone, sequestered behind Trish’s sugary kingdom, when a patron reported blood seeping from under a cubicle. When the individual locked inside did not respond to my knocking, I again entered the next cubicle, stood on the toilet seat and peered over the partition. 

A young woman was wedged between the wall and the toilet bowl. Both wrists were sliced open and she lay in an expanding pool of blood. When the ambulance arrived, I was inducted into service. It fell to me to open the cubicle door. I clambered over the partition, lowered myself into the space with the body and unlocked the door from inside. The floor was slick with gore. Of course, I slipped and fell. As I did so, the inevitable happened: our eyes met. I had avoided looking at her face, and especially her eyes, until this point. I was in survival mode. The situation dictated detachment in aid of getting the job done. To look directly at the face would be to acknowledge her, to humanise and to be involved. I didn’t want that. It would undo swift efficiency.

I don’t know if she was dead or hanging by a thread as we lay on the floor, eyeballing each other, for a split second that turned, like a cliché, into eternity. The thing that haunts is the unblinking fixedness of the eyes and the absence of life in the face. 

‘Why,’ I thought, ‘would you cast your life away in a toilet?’

She broke my heart. But I was also angry with her for flinging away her life, and for having such contempt for herself that she’d do it in a crapper.

IT’S SAID THAT all things come to an end – and so they do. The leave-taking from the inglorious movie palace is as hazy as how I came to be there in the first place. One thing is certain: ambition, a desire for bigger, better things, had nothing to do with it. Boredom and restlessness probably did. The long and the short of it is that one day I was there, the next day I wasn’t. I did not step inside the building again, nor did I keep in touch with former colleagues. Like Lot, I knew better than to look back.

IN THE BEST filmic tradition, we will now deploy a slow dissolve. The image fades, the music is suggestive of time passing, and when the picture returns to focus, we will move twenty-three years forward in time. Out of respect for Brian de Palma, it’s a split-screen sequence. Yours truly is framed on the left side of the screen; an unknown man’s head with short dark hair fills the right side. The face has a desk phone stuck to its ear and it’s listening intently as the phone rings at the other end. I pick up the receiver and put on my best professional voice.

‘Good afternoon. Penguin Books. Dmetri speaking.’
‘Dude, I finally found you.’
‘Hello. Who is this please?’
‘Dude, it’s Ross B—. I’ve been trying to find you for years.’
‘That’s nice. How may I help you,’ says me, doing my best to sound like Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
‘You don’t remember me, do you?’
‘No. Sorry.’
‘We used to work together at Hoyts.’
‘That was a long time ago…’
‘Yes, but…’

The enthusiastic chatterbox gives me a Reader’s Digest version of his life since we last sniffed popcorn together. How he’s been scouring the Internet to find me. How our conversations in the cinema foyer meant a lot to him. How I taught him to appreciate good filmmaking, which, in turn, influenced him to become an actor and filmmaker. On it went. And I still had no idea who he was. His name didn’t ring a bell. Meanwhile, the manuscript I was editing grew cold on the desk.

‘I’ve wanted to invite you to things I’ve done,’ he went on, ‘but I didn’t know how to find you.’
‘How did you find me?’ I ask, dreading the reply.
‘I saw your book in the Brunswick Street Bookshop. The author bio says you work at Penguin.’
Mental note to self: Don’t announce workplace in next book.

Uttering flattering remarks about my book Mother Land was a clever strategy on his part. The praise stroked the ego and melted my defences a smidgeon. It also brought home a pertinent fact: writers often toss stones into a pond, but rarely do they think about the shores the ripples will one day touch. I wrote Mother Land out of deep imperative. It did not cross my mind that it may affect people or cause readers to congregate ’round it. It turns out that’s exactly what happened. If the book is my conduit between past and present, a bridge built over time and space, it’s logical to conclude that a reader can use it to trace a lost acquaintance. That much made sense.

What I could not fathom, as I listened to Ross speak, was why someone would keep a friendship alive, fan it and allow it to grow, for twenty-three years. The issue is complicated when you consider that the beneficiary of the friendship is ignorant of the individual who bestows the gift. Was the caller a dewy-eyed sop, excessively sentimental and nostalgic?

Then came the clincher: ‘Man, I’d really like to catch up. Can we meet for a drink?’

Try as I might, I could not get out of it without hurting his feelings. He sounded genuine and harmless, but so does the average serial killer. I agreed on the proviso we meet in a public place. If he was going to stab me, I wanted witnesses. Then I made sure those closest to me knew where the rendezvous was taking place and with whom. One hour would define the limits of my generosity.

Later I walked into the agreed upon bar in the city, feeling vulnerable and uncertain: Ross had confidently stated that he would recognise me, but
I had no idea what he looked like. It felt dangerous. Fatal Attraction came to mind. On the one hand I was curious and on the other I was reluctant to open the door to the past. I knew from experience that calling upon the ghosts of former selves can cause regret, embarrassment and discomfort. The thought of attending a high school reunion is my idea of a nightmare.

The bar’s outdoor smokers’ area was packed and noisy, the lighting dim and the atmosphere oppressive. I stood at the entrance, looking for a phantom. 

A bulky form rose out of the melee, moved towards me and, before I knew it, I was caught in a tight embrace. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘Mother, I will soon join you in the afterworld.’ 

When he released me and stood back, I was presented with a beaming face, topped with dark hair and bristly chin. He was a big bloke. Towered over me by a foot. In black T-shirt and checked red-and-black shirt he was a man I did not want to mess with. Yet there was something of the gentle giant about him – Little John, from The Adventures of Robin Hood, came to mind.

My hope that seeing him would bring back the association vanished in an instant. He was not in the least familiar. He could have been anyone pretending to know me. We sat at a small table. He offered me a drink. And, in the blink of an eye, four hours passed. Possibly because we were both aware of the unusual circumstances, we spoke to each other in a heightened state of excitement and awareness. I was on my best behaviour. Inordinate courtesy ruled the day, even when his views about certain films were gold-plated malarkey. On the other hand I was thrilled to learn more about Chinese and Taiwanese cinema – his obsession. The conversation was wide-ranging. Not at all restricted, as I feared, to reminiscences about ‘the good old days’. It was, as he later observed, like ‘twenty years melted and we were talking again, just like we used to in 1987.’ 

Only I couldn’t remember talking to him in 1987. 

When we parted that evening, with promises to meet again, two thoughts ran through my head. The first was that Ross made a mistake; I am not the person he thinks I am, he’s thinking of someone else. Yet the utterances he attributed to me – the words, expressions, observations on this or that film – were definitely mine.

The other thought came to me on the train. We go through life, it seems, meeting people, spouting words, sallying forth with views and opinions, yet we rarely think about the impact our words have on others. If someone told me at the age of twenty-six that my candy-coloured philosophising was going to influence a boy from provincial Lara, I would have laughed. Only the middle-aged man I am now appreciates the implications. 

For various reasons, I have lived life cut off from the past. I’m good at compartmentalising, segregating, making sure people see only a small piece of the totality, never the entire picture. Only in the unlikely event that all my friends gather in the same room (perhaps at my funeral?) will the pieces come together. When a part of my life is over, I close the door and move on, never to think on it again. There is no room for sentimentality. It’s a defence mechanism. But life is full of surprises and there is no controlling it. 

IT ALWAYS COMES back to movies. Which is why I see Ross’s return as if it were a film script, a narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Life is not like that. But is it a mistake to expect his reappearance to have purpose, reason?

I call Ross the ‘returner’. He is a ghost from the past, a voice that will not be silenced, an influence that will not go away. Other than family, I have not kept in touch with anyone from my early years. Ross is the only one. He knew me when I was young and struggling to come to terms with life. That’s as close to the original as it gets. His presence holds up a mirror to a fragmented self. It makes integration and wholeness possible. I don’t know why we didn’t remain friends after Hoyts Midcity, but I know he came back at the right time.

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