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article imageOp-Ed: Waiting for Alcatraz

By Peter G.Donald     Jan 17, 2012 in Entertainment
The new series from J.J. Abrams makes this writer think about America's abandoned prisons, insane asylums and power stations. And the brilliant work of Matthew Christopher.
The premiere of the new television series “Alcatraz” makes this writer think about my first visit there as a little boy, and also the joy of seeing “E.T.” for the first time.
As a kid my Mom made a point of having my sister and me visit every state in the Union, spare Alaska and Hawaii. Later in life I did visit Hawaii.
The trip was made in a maroon Pontiac station wagon, and thinking about it now evokes memories of reading Lolita and my touring with the Indiana rock band Philpot later in life.
By this I mean we stayed in a lot of motels, all very much the same in whatever town, city or state we made our presence known. We would get out of a pool in Colorado or Arkansas, let's say, and think we were in Wyoming. For me, in retrospect, early chain motels like Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns were the first indication of the homogenization of America. But this was the beginning of the 1970s and it was still beautiful.
Our travel grid never took us more than 300 miles, just as is the case when you're touring down and dirty with an alternative rock band. Our family journeys were like a series of military bivouacs. We had a heat immersion coil for Mom's instant coffee and tiny boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies into which we poured milk and consumed the cereal with plastic spoons.
My father was smart enough to avoid the first 49 states and meet us in California. My mother's endurance was remarkable, riding in that Pontiac with a big nose grill and two early teens at a time when kids were about to start growing ponytails.
Mom and Dad took us to Alcratraz, and I was sold at “Hello.” I liked sharks. I also liked imagining what had happened in places long before I had ever arrived there. If these walls could speak, know what I mean?
From early on, I had always sympathized with underdogs, rock musicians, the wrongly accused, and neglected animals. In the eerie shadowy silence of a prison now populated by tourists, I liked to think about the men who had to live there, perhaps through cruel and selfish actions, perhaps by ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps from having a few too many drinks or drugs.
A few years later I started to spend entire days in the cool of Manhattan movie theaters, watching films like “The Shining,” “Star Wars,” “Network,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Jaws” and “E.T.” from the opening bell. By that I mean I would get to the theater for the first 11 a.m. show the day a movie opened and stay there until the theater closed. I lived in those movie theaters.
My introduction to “A Clockwork Orange” and “Star Wars” was unique: Someone had given me acid!
Then there was the running joke I had with my college buddy Hovey Brock, a great painter. We would not leave each other alone until we attended “Conan: The Barbarian” and “The Wrath of Khan” together. Later I would tell other classmates about “The Wrath of Hovey.”
Finally I am getting to J.J. Abrams. The high-concept notion of “Super 8” I dug before I saw it. My buddy, the late James Mellon Curley, used to make great 8 mm horror films in a castle in Ireland where his Father later became Ambassador from the United States.
And John Scribner (of, yes, the publishing Scribners) and I used to suck down cases of Coca-Cola at his family's New Jersey estate and watch “Chiller Theater.” This led to Scribner's seminal pre-pubescent 8 mm horror films of the late 60s and early 70s.
So I was so excited when “Jaws” came out. I watched it in a theater in Georgetown with a dear friend, Katrina, in a continuous all-day loop the hot summer day it came out. The air conditioning was a great relief due to the humidity outside. Remember, Washington is built on a swamp.
Plus I love Martha's Vineyard, where “Jaws” was shot, and I was blown away by Spielberg's youth and ability.
Back to “Super 8” and J.J. Abrams. My problem with the film at first glance was I did not have affection for the young, abrasive and over-amplified characters, no offense to the actors. I just didn't respond to them the way I did to Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas in E.T.
Now: Alcatraz.” I have a unique perspective on how TV is developed because I was a programming executive at Fox network back in the day. I left my job as a political speechwriter thinking I was going to BBC. I wasn't.
One thing that appealed to me was that the guy who hired me, Stephen Chao, was obsessed with the movie “Tron” and stayed in the theater all day when the film opened to the public.
No: I have not seen “Alcatraz” yet, but I will. And it is important to me that I actually went there as a boy.
A hot tip: Readers should wrap their heads around Matthew Christopher's brilliant photography featured at ("Autopsy of the American Dream.”) Christopher got a film degree from Temple but spent a decade as a mental health worker. He actually listened to the people he was caring for, and kept hearing about long-closed asylums. He ended up becoming one of the greatest photographers in the world.
Now there's a good idea for a movie.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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