How Three Movies Changed My Life

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Davis Cone painting of the Des Plaines Theater in Des Plaines, IL. This is where Eric Coyote first saw Rocky, Star Wars, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Breaking Away, among countless other movies.

Memorial Day weekend is always a time for reflection and also the traditional start of the summer movie season. With that spirit in mind, I look back at three movies which helped make me who I am today.

Animal House (1978), directed by John Landis

I first saw Animal House (1978) in 1982, the summer before I went off to college. There was a midnight screening at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois near where I grew up. I went with my father, which was embarrassing as the theater was filled with drunk, stoned, rowdy teenagers and college kids. Showing up with dad in tow made me look like a dork, or worse. But he paid for my ticket, so what the fuck.

My father had graduated from Cornell in 1959; Animal House was set in 1962. After the movie, I asked him if college was really that crazy back then.

“We didn’t have toga parties,” he said. “But we did have Bo Diddley play at our fraternity.”

I nearly crapped myself. Bo Diddley was the godfather of rock ’n’ roll, a musical pioneer with his legendary Bo Diddley beat. Chicago’s coolest radio station, WXRT, played Bo Diddley songs all the time. My father was about as square as they come, an engineer living in white-bread suburbia with an overweight wife and two stupid kids, a man who sold air conditioners for a living. Him partying with Bo Diddley at an Ivy League college did not compute.

Yet, it happened. Apparently, one of my father’s Sigma Pi fraternity brothers was on the Cornell lacrosse team and discovered Bo Diddley playing in some shithole honky tonk while the team was practicing down south during winter break. With my father’s help, they lured Diddley north to Ithaca, New York to perform at their frat party that spring.

When we got home that night, my father showed me the vinyl LP his fraternity pressed from that gig. I had no idea it existed. My father had been hiding it from us all these years. I looked at him differently after that. Not as a golf nerd dad, but as a person. Nay, a former a party animal. All thanks to Animal House.

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Friday the 13th (1980), directed by Sean S. Cunningham

Some movies just plain scare the shit out of you. They hit you at the right time in your life for maximum impact. Friday the 13th (1980) was one such movie for me. My parents were going through a rough patch in their marriage, considering divorce. Actually, it was more than a rough patch. It was a treacherous minefield straight out of every World War Two movie. One night, they were having another knockdown verbal brawl. Dishes were being thrown, threats made, screams unleashed. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I borrowed the car and went to the movies. I wasn’t a fan of horror films per se, but enjoyed watching Psycho (1960) whenever it was on TV. I thought Friday the 13th would take my mind off my troubled family. I was wrong. It made me think about it even more. I wasn’t prepared for slasher gore, let alone a serial killer who was a mother grieving over the loss of her son. I was still shaken by the time I got home. When I walked through the door well past midnight, both my mom and dad were livid. Not at each other, but at me. They demanded to know where I had been.

I told them I went to the movies and didn’t think they’d notice or care.

But they did care. They were worried sick that I’d run away from home, or had been in a fatal car accident. They’d even called the police looking for me.

I wasn’t expecting that. I asked my mom if she loved me enough to kill for me. It was the kind of odd question only a teenager who’d just seen Friday the 13th could ask. My mother answered yes, of course. She said she loved me so much, she’d do anything for me. That’s what a son likes to hear from his mom, and it’s what I needed to hear from her then. A vow of unconditional love. I can’t say it’s because I went out to see Friday the 13th that night, but my parents stayed married another 38 years, until my mother passed away from Alzheimer’s in January of 2018. My father was by her side to the very end.

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Diner (1982), directed by Barry Levinson

During my sophomore year of college, I went to a campus screening of Diner (1982) with Linda, the girl who often sat next to me in economics class. I didn’t really know her that well and was still a rube when it came to dating. I didn’t understand that movies made horrible first dates. As the film went on, I desperately wanted to hold Linda’s hand, but was too nervous and too shy to make the move. Then came Diner’s now famous popcorn scene, where Mickey Rourke sticks his erect penis in the popcorn container so his date will ‘accidentally’ touch it. I felt myself blushing while the sequence played out, especially when Rourke’s date reacts with horror. I didn’t want Linda to think I was that kind of guy. Turns out, I needn’t worry. Linda leaned over and whispered to me, “I won’t freak out if you want me to touch your cock.”

That night, after the movie, we drove out to Griffy Lake. I parked my potato brown Chevy Citation so we were overlooking the still waters of the reservoir. It was the most romantic spot in Bloomington, Indiana, which isn’t saying much. Linda and I started making out. Pretty soon, Linda said she wanted me inside her, and I obliged. I must give a shout out to director Barry Levinson. I lost my virginity because of Diner.

We usually deride movies as mere entertainment, but they have the power to change our lives in profound, unforeseen ways. What movies have changed your life or made you who you are today?

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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