This is the week of the crunch. The Maine International Film Festival, held each year in Waterville, Maine, is about to convene. It is my job as the lone film critic/reviewer for the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal to sit up and pay attention. I must view 10 films and write about them each day of the festivities.

So I sit here in the twilight of my days, doing the one thing I’m good at, writing, and that would be about the one thing I know most about. Movies. How did this happen, you ask? How did I, a formerly handsome boy from the streets with so much promise, arrive in this place and this task, you ask? OK, you didn’t ask, but I will tell you anyway.

One warm March afternoon when I was 9, my father shattered my normal boyhood by slipping silently and slowly to the sidewalk, only six blocks from where I sat on the front porch, waiting for him. It was the end of his life and the beginning of my new one.

Suddenly I was the only kid on the block without a father, a confused outlier. I had brothers, of course, all much older. A brother can pretend to be a father, but you both know that it isn’t the same. Slowly and silently, I slipped away from the pack. I became someone else. No one seemed to notice.

It happened like this. After the formal funeral, there was the traditional wake at the house, where someone, a sister or brother, worried about me. I was sitting in the corner, fiddling with my collar and tie, so I was given a quarter to go to the neighborhood movie house, the Michigan Avenue Theater, where I bought my popcorn and soda, settled into my seat in the second row and watched Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio.”

It was the first time I had ever gone to the movies alone. There I was, surrounded by a soothing darkness and so stunned by the color and light that all pain and shock vanished. I was part of the movies. I never left that movie house. I packed it in my heart and took it to Chicago, New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, to Hong Kong and Tokyo, almost always alone in the dark but never lonely. It was a movie house, and the dark was light enough.

At least three times a week, after my homework, after supper, I went to the movies, the way kids today turn on the television. I saw every movie Jimmy Cagney made. He was my favorite, my hero.

It cost a dime. I always found one, on the floor, in the sofa, in my brother’s old coats. A dime. A ticket to the comforting darkness of the Michigan. My old buddies on the block weren’t allowed to go to the movies as much as I could, and many didn’t have the dime admission. So by some quirk of fate, I became the neighborhood movie reviewer and critic.

On summer days, after seeing a movie, I’d run home and line up the other kids on my front porch steps and tell the entire story, acting out all the parts — male, female and animals. The actor was born.

One summer night, I heard my pal Alan on his porch next door, begging his father to take him to see a Tarzan movie. His father, a cop, said he’d heard it was terrible.

Alan said, “No, Jerry says it’s great, and Tarzan almost dies.” He took him. A film reviewer was born.
When I was grown, after a life in the theater, I drifted into small parts in big films and little ones. I watched the stars and the name directors work. I had seen the magic; now I was watching the magicians.

One hot August day in Burbank, Calif., I was on the back lot at Warner Bros., shooting a scene in “The FBI” with the wonderful Efrem Zimbalist Jr. When we were finished, I walked out onto the lot, and a big limo stopped just in front of me. A short, aging man got out with his wife. It was Jimmy Cagney. I glanced; he smiled. I looked away. When a hero smiles, the light can be blinding.

The Maine International Film Festival begins July 12. The movies: the way life should be.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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