A. O. Scott on Kissing, the Movies, and Frank O’Hara

In his article “A Brief History of Kissing in Movies” in this upcoming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, the film critic A. O. Scott argues that “movies have always been about sex and have always provided, under cover of harmless amusement, the tools of sexual initiation. This is an open secret. The industry, the audience and the critics conspire to pretend that something other than erotic fulfillment is the reason for the art form’s existence.”

In order to demonstrate this point, he turns to Frank O’Hara’s great movie poem, “Ave Maria,” which portrays the movies as a site of sexual initiation and liberation:

In his poem “Ave Maria,” Frank O’Hara exhorts the “Mothers of America” to “let your kids go to the movies!” The first reason is to give Mom a chance to pursue her own adult interests: “get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to.” But they will also have the chance to get up to some mischief themselves (“they may even be grateful to you/for their first sexual experience”), to cultivate “the darker joys” that blossom in the dark of the movie theater and that include the possibility of “leaving the movie before it’s over/with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg/near the Williamsburg Bridge.” On the other hand, if the mothers don’t listen to the poem’s advice, “the family breaks up/and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set/seeing/movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young.”

“Ave Maria” is a perfect refutation of the puritanical idea of the guilty pleasure. The guilt in O’Hara’s poem comes from the denial and delay of pleasure. The kids will see the movies anyway, and also find what pleasures they can — how do you suppose they went blind? — but the thrill will be gone, and the happy domestic arrangement that made it all possible will have collapsed. Without free access to perversity — to “candy bars” and “gratuitous bags of popcorn” — the children will never be normal.

It’s not the first time Scott has referred to O’Hara, or to this poem — for example, in a 2007 New York Times piece about movie-going and children he wrote:

“Mothers of America, let your kids go to the movies!” Always good advice, but the exhortation has dated a bit since 1960, when Frank O’Hara made it the first line of his poem “Ave Maria.” “Going to the movies” has a quaint ring in the age of the plasma-screen home entertainment system, the iPod and video-on-demand.

… And the phenomenon of family viewing — the mothers and fathers of America taking their children to the movies — has become a central cultural activity consistent with the highly participatory style of parenthood currently in vogue.

I would not wish it otherwise, but I also worry that the dominance of the family film has had a limiting, constraining effect on the imaginations of children. The point of Mr. O’Hara’s poem is that the movies represent a zone of mystery and cultural initiation: “it’s true that fresh air is good for the body,” he writes, “but what about the soul/that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images”?

Never mind that he also reminds his mothers that their offspring “may even be grateful to you for their first sexual experience, which only cost you a quarter and didn’t upset the peaceful home.” How are they going to grow, if the images they see are carefully vetted for safety and appropriateness by the film industry?

In other words: Parents of America, take your children to the movies you want to see!

Clearly “Ave Maria” serves as a kind of touchstone for Scott’s thinking about movies, and with good reason: O’Hara’s poem is both hilarious and complex in its meditation on the cultural meanings of movie-going and the experience of film.  I’ve written myself about O’Hara and the movies, and “Ave Maria,” on several occasions before — for example, here and here.

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