The family member who most influenced me as a critic | Bleader

Monday, May 5, 2014

The family member who most influenced me as a critic

Posted By on 05.05.14 at 01:30 PM

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Léos Caraxs The Lovers on the Bridge
  • Léos Carax's The Lovers on the Bridge
A couple Sundays back was the yahrzeit of my cousin Naomi, so I went with my parents and a handful of other relations to the Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park for the unveiling of her gravestone. The few times I've gone to this cemetery, whoever's driven has taken Harlem Avenue for the final leg of the trip. We go past the Blue Line terminus near the Eisenhower Expressway, and the mass of idle train cars makes me think of coffins converging in some sort of traffic jam of the dead.

Naomi was married to the first cousin of my father's mother. But she and her husband Bill were effectively grandparents to me and to dozens of other kids—some of them blood relations, but just as often the children and grandchildren of friends and colleagues. On weekends or during school holidays we were delivered (one, two, or even several at a time) to their home just north of the city limits, and from there embark on a trip into Chicago. Naomi's favorite destination was the Cook County Criminal Courthouse—she'd sample the oratorial styles of the judges as though auditioning them for a play—but she also liked old bookstores, greenhouses, and public buildings that offered guided tours. If we went to a museum, it was never a major one, but some place like the Oriental Institute or the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. She'd check out any cultural exhibition, no matter how esoteric, provided the admission was minimal or free. Like a character in a Jacques Rivette film, she went about the city as though leafing through a giant book, picking up whatever knowledge was there for the taking.

Her two sons died of AIDS in the 1980s. They were hemophiliacs, and they contracted the virus from transfusions with contaminated blood. (It would be an insult to suggest she involved herself in the lives of so many children to compensate for the children she lost—I'm convinced that passion as rare as hers must be innate.) Naomi and Bill's sole granddaughter is a few years older than me. Her father died when she was very young. When we were growing up we saw each other at least once a year, when she came from out of town to see her grandparents. At the cemetery I realized these visits have remained more or less constant through my life—I've never been away from Chicago for more than a few months at a time, and she frequently had reason to come. (In the last decade she'd return to visit Naomi at the assisted living facilities where, widowed and besieged by physical and mental ills, her spark slowly flickered out.) The yahrzeit ritual is meant to conclude a year of mourning—but it also conjures memories of what you did one year before, giving you a chance to retrieve anything you may have left behind at that time. This was the last time my cousin and I would have Naomi as a pretext to see each other, I realized—after this, I thought, we'd have to get in touch like grown-ups and become more deliberate about meeting up. That sounds so obvious it doesn't need to be mentioned, yet it felt strange to be thinking like adults with someone I'd always engaged with as a fellow grandchild.

Those trips to the courthouse are as fundamental to our bond as any common blood. If there was one quality Naomi actively tried to impress upon us kids, it was her guileless interest in anything and everything. Her formal education didn't go beyond high school, yet what intelligence she accumulated (and how humbly she accumulated it). Curiosity motivated her above all. As I grew older, I also came to recognize in her makeshift education a certain resourcefulness. It was honed during the Great Depression and never forgotten, which taught her to save any scrap that might prove useful later on. (Of all my relatives she shared her memories of the Depression the most freely and the most warmly, describing the sad single men who rented rooms in her mother's apartment like characters in an Old World folktale.)

It was never hard to persuade her to go to the movies. In December 1999 we made a weekend of Princess Mononoke and Léos Carax's The Lovers on the Bridge, both of which had just come out in the U.S. for the first time. Her first response to each: "What imagination! Where do these filmmakers get their ideas?" Even then I knew more than she did about how movies are made—regardless, few people have had such a direct influence on my critical practice.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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