My mother assures me that the first movie my younger brother and I saw was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” I have absolutely no recollection of seeing it and for good reason: I think I was a good two or three years old at the time (Pasolini’s film would be shown occasionally in Puerto Rico’s theaters in Semana Santa during most of the 60s and the early part of the 70s after its initial 1964 release). My mother could not find a babysitter who could take care of us and so decided to take us along for the ride.
The first actual movie image I recall was the final one from “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1971), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (the man who brought us the original “Planet of the Apes” and “Patton”): the bullet-riddled and blood-stained wall of the room where Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and their children have just been executed by a group of revolutionaries. The fact that a movie could recreate so vividly such a horrible moment in history —particularly the cold blooded murder of children—, stuck with me for a long, long time. My film education was just beginning.
Second vivid movie memory: going to the long-gone Rex Cinema on Fernández Juncos Avenue in Santurce, right outside San Juan, for a double bill of “The Sicilian Clan” starring Alain Delon and “The French Connection.” I don’t remember much of the Delon film (partly because we arrived near the tail end) but, boy, “The French Connection”’s now legendary car/elevated train chase sequence down the streets of New York sure had me on the edge of my seat. Other great, and not so great, films followed: “The Burglars” starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif, “The Odessa Files,” “Logan’s Run,” “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” etc.
The Movie Theater, Our Church
Going to the movies on a Sunday was, and still is, a ritual in the Riera-Seivane household. No matter the rating, no matter the language, no matter the genre, and no matter where we lived in Puerto Rico (my family moved a lot!) the movie theater was our church. When Dad took us to an R-rated film, he would cover our faces to protect us from the stronger scenes; but we always tried to sneak a look to see what was happening on-screen. My brother and I were fed a steady diet of “A,” “B” and even “Z” movies. It wasn’t long before our younger sister joined us in this ritual.
I started delivering the now-defunct The San Juan Star, Puerto Rico’s only English-language daily (and the subject of another movie, “The Rum Diary”), when I was 14. The paper route gave me the monetary means to buy books and records and go to the movies at least once a week, especially during the summertime. My brother and younger sister, more often than not, would join me in these excursions. It was at this time that I also discovered that people actually wrote movie reviews and articles for a living.
Juan Gerard, El Mundo’s film critic, was Puerto Rico’s answer to Roger Ebert. His reviews were erudite without being pedantic, incredibly accessible and fun to read. And then, WIPR-TV Channel 6, Puerto Rico’s government-owned TV station, started transmitting this little movie review program you may have heard of: “Sneak Previews”. As much as I enjoyed Ebert and Siskel’s take on the movies, there was only one reason why I would see “Sneak Previews” week after week: Spot the Wonder Dog who would announce, with a sharp bark, the “Dog of the Week”.
I also started reading magazines like “Starlog” and “Fangoria”. Thanks to “Fangoria” I was introduced to the works of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. “Starlog” gave me an introductory course in the history of science-fiction films and a look ahead at movies that might (or might not) hit our local movie screens. Gerard, Ebert, and Siskel, on the other hand, introduced me to names that would remain foreign to me until I went to college. Gerard would later abandon film criticism for a worthier pursuit: the opening of Cinearte in Puerto Rico’s bank zone of Hato Rey, a movie theater dedicated to screening foreign-language and independent films on a regular basis, and which would later be replaced by the Fine Arts Café.
Inspired by all three critics, I tried my hand as a film reviewer writing for my high school newspaper (although it was really more of a magazine printed in mimeograph) during my junior and senior years. Not all my reviews were popular. I still remember being threatened by some of my classmates if I dared say something negative about “Taps,” the movie that introduced us to Sean Penn and Tom Cruise. I actually did give the film a mixed review, feeling that it sort of fell apart after George C. Scott left the film. I wish I knew were some of those old film reviews (and the stories and poems I wrote for “Avance”) are kept in my parents’ house. They might be worth revisiting. Or not.