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The Great Movie Moments of Life: Movie Deja Vu

There are certain universal moments that everyone goes through, that, when someone else puts their experience with these moments into words, you undoubtedly end up remembering your own version of them, like, “Oh shit, that happened to me too!”

I’ll skip over examples (though you remember that time as a kid when you thought for a second that you might actually have psychic powers because a few things you thought coincidentally happened? That’s the kind of stuff that I’m talking about), but, this story is going to be my own personal experience with movie deja vu.

I’m defining movie deja vu as the experience of seeing a movie as a child, then vividly remembering a scene from that movie years later, despite having absolutely no idea what the movie in question was. All you know is that the scene stuck with you, and no matter what you do, you can’t figure out what the hell that movie was.

When I was a kid — I must have been maybe 8 or 9 — I remember one day going into the living room, where my father was on the couch (he worked nights) watching television. This was something I was used to during my childhood — hell, it’s something I’m used to now. Any time I think of my father off from work, I think of him relaxing, around 11 or 12 o’clock, watching reruns of E.R., watching random movies — nowadays it’s always House — and then the Price is Right would be on, and I’d watch that too and we’d have lunch. I was at the age where I didn’t yet want any privacy, so I often hung out in the living room, playing, doing whatever, while he watched TV.

And this one instance — I’ll never forget it (which is a statement just asking to be tested by dementia) — I was sitting there playing, and I wasn’t very interested in what was on television, but I glanced up every now and again. And on TV, I remember a scene where a dude was on stage, singing a song — which, for some reason, years later I would apocryphally remember this song as being “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by the Cutting Crew, but I’ll get back to that later — and I knew that the dude wasn’t supposed to be singing the song. I remember someone coming and telling him, if he sings the song, he’ll be killed. And yet he goes and sings the song anyway. And I remember some kind of evil being standing atop the stage, looking down and watching, and that being the dude who explicitly told him not to sing the song. So, as the dude sings, the evil dude goes and drops a piece of scenery or something on him and kills him.

The scene terrified me. I just remember the dude who killed the singer being really creepy looking and being very menacing like, and for some reason that image just stuck in my brain and haunted me.

There are a few images throughout my lifetime that burned themselves into my brain and have always freaked me out. Most people would be like, “Gene Wilder on the boat in Willy Wonka” as being something that freaked the fuck out of them. My big one was always the flashy face in The Exorcist. That big white devil face that pops up out of nowhere. I saw that shit in theaters when they rereleased it as “The Version You’ve Never Seenn,” and that shit scared the living daylights out of me. (Honorable mention to the scary ass magnet in The Brave Little Toaster.) The other one that’s burned into my brain I’ll get to in a second, because it directly relates to the next part of my story.

So, that scene of the dude perching atop the stage, looking down menacingly, and killing the singer as he sang the song he wasn’t supposed to sing, stuck in my brain. It would randomly come back to me an would still freak me out. Of course the memory dulled over time, but it never went away. I was never able to listen to “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” the same way ever again.

I’m not kidding.

Every time I heard that song, that image would come flooding back to me, and would freak me out. I remember watching that SNL sketch, with Will Ferrell and Horatio Sanz, as the wedding singers who, no matter what the groom wants them to play, keep playing “(I Just) Died in Your Arms,” because that’s the only song they know. And that skit just freaked me the hell out because I always remembered that scene from my childhood.

Anyway, it was during college, and I was expanding my musical horizon. That is — I was downloading every famous song there was, so that when people went on my computer, they’d find just about anything they were looking for. And I got came across the Cutting Crew. Which made all those memories of that moment come flooding back.

But at this point, I was no longer freaked out by it, I just wanted to know what the hell the movie was. I could remember the scene so vividly, but had no clue what the hell the movie was. And I knew if I tried to describe the scene, no one would know what the hell I was talking about, because, I’m the dude that knows every movie. When I don’t know something, we’re all fucked. The best I could do was maybe go on some random movie message board and hope someone who was like me, only more experienced, knew what it was, but that seemed too easy. I wanted to try to find it myself.

Of course, this wasn’t an obsession. It was more the kind of thing where, when I’d remember it, I’d try to look for it, but I never really got anywhere. I figured I’d get lucky, search for the Cutting Crew song on IMDB and see all the movies it was featured in. Then if I could link up a synopsis to the scene I remembered, maybe I’d get lucky. But the real problem with that was — the Cutting Crew song wasn’t the song that played over that scene.

I’m thinking the reason I thought it was that song was because, sometime that morning, we happened upon one of the channels that played (as is so often the case, mid-morning) one of those music compilation commercials. “Mega hits of the 70s” and such. Trying to get you to buy the 12 CD set within the next thirty minutes, and they’ll throw in the extra CD of love songs free. (Remember, this memory happened in the early 90s. Those things still existed back then.) It must have been 80s songs, and the Cutting Crew happened to be on it. So the memory of both of those things just molded together. But what’s important is that, because I was focusing my efforts on the song, I never got anywhere. And ultimately it was the kind of thing where, I’d hoped one day I’d run into it and get really lucky.

I’m proud to say, that as of today — I found my movie. It’s nice to know that I can put this puppy to rest and not have that unsolved mystery open in my brain anymore.

The movie in question was Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.

Yeah, not even remotely terrifying. In fact, the whole thing is so wildly over the top, it is kind of funny that I was frightened by it. The Phantom throws a giant neon lightning bolt sign and electrocutes the dude on stage and he explodes into a bunch of flames. It’s nuts.

But, looking at this picture of the Phantom, it does bear somewhat of a resemblance to the Exorcist face, doesn’t it? Take a look:

And here’s the context of the flashy face, just so you can see why it scared the fuck out of me. Even in this clip it’s freaky. Now imagine it coming twenty minutes into a slow, banal film about a girl getting sick where nothing’s really happened this far.

And on top of that, years later, The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney would become one of my all-time favorite movies. I saw it for the first time in college with the Alloy Orchestra doing an accompanying live score in the theater. And in the film, there’s that moment after the ball when the guy and girl are on the roof, and there’s that sudden wide shot reveal of the Phantom sitting on the statue, watching them from overhead. And when I saw that in the theater, I got chills. It became one of those moments that etched itself into my brain forever.

And now, finding the source of my childhood terror some fifteen years later, I feel like it’s all connected. Why did an image of a guy on a statue above scare the hell out of me? Because it’s almost the exact same moment that happens in Phantom of the Paradise. (Granted, the one-to-one comparison is the chandelier coming down, but you get the point.) And why was the flashy face so terrifying for me? Because of the similarities to that moment.

It’s also strange to me that, given my love of the story of Phantom of the Opera, I wouldn’t have sought out all the iterations of it sooner, especially one made by Brian De Palma, whose films I love. I somehow watched the Joel Schumacher version before this! Hell, I saw the Dario Argento version before I saw this.

I did, however, sort of figure this might have been the film two years ago. This is the kind of film that comes up in conversations about underrated and cult films. It’s come up a few times, and more recently, the film popped up in an article I read where Edgar Wright listed his favorite musicals. And I saw a picture of it and thought, “I think this may be the one.”

It was like Deep Throat. All signs over the years clearly pointed to it being who it was, and his name was always one of the few that were constantly circulated because, when you think logically about what it could be, there are only a few choices. So I kind of knew this was going to be a very strong candidate. And now, since I’ve finished my Oscar Quest (on Netflix mailers), I was freed up to start getting anything I wanted again (which, I forgot how stressful it is, trying to decide what you want to get next when your queue is constantly at the maximum of 500). So I said to myself — “Let’s give it a shot. At worst it’s just another version of Phantom, and that’s great. At best, I found my film and I’m gonna feel awesome.” Plus I read an interview recently where it was brought up yet again, and that sort of spurred me to be like, “I need to go ahead and see this now, and add it to my collection of movies I’ve seen.” Thank god I did.

So, back to my original point — how great does it feel when you have a movie you saw as a kid, but couldn’t remember for the life of you what it was outside of a particular scene or image, and then you finally find it and can put a title on that memory that’s imprinted in your brain?

That’s why I love movies.

(Also: Wouldn’t it be just like me for the film that I couldn’t find/remember from age 8 be something like Phantom of the Paradise and not something like Jaws?)

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One response

  1. I had one of these this year myself. I think I was maybe 7 or 8 when I saw this film, so about 20 years ago now. I had remembered it was about a guy who had superpowers because of some explosion or nuclear set off or something. Anyway, the only catch was that he couldn’t use his powers if he saw the color red. I had looked for ever trying to figure out what this movie was just because for some reason it had stuck with me for years and years and I’d asked so many people if they had ever seen it, etc. to no avail. Anyway, just a few months ago, I was searching around on IMDB and just putzing around and I decided to delve deeper into it. Someone mentioned a movie with the same plot outline and mentioned they remembered Ernest Borgnine being in the film, which I hadn’t remembered. After further searching on IMDB in Borgnine’s credits, I found it. It was a 1980 film by Sergio Corbucci called “Super Fuzz”. I haven’t re-watched it since figuring out what it was, but it does look much sillier than I had remembered. What a relief though figuring out the name of something like that after all these years – definitely gives some form of closure.

    May 12, 2011 at 9:56 pm

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